Jeanette Phillips was presented the centennial award during the 100th anniversary celebration of the Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management, in Oxford, Miss. on Thursday, October 24, 2013. Photo courtesy of The Oxford Eagle.
OXFORD, Miss. – Fearless. Gracious. Principled. Kind. A pioneer. Charming, with “a backbone of forged steel.”
There is no shortage of flattering terms used when people remember Jeanette Phillips, former professor and chair of the University of Mississippi’s Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management. Phillips, 85, died June 13.
A native of Kewanee, just east of Meridian, Phillips earned a bachelor’s degree from Blue Mountain College in 1953, a master’s degree in home economics from UM in 1954 and a doctorate in 1973. She spent decades teaching at Ole Miss and served as department chair, but was also one of the most respected child nutritionists in the country and successfully brought the National Food Service Management Institute (now the Institute of Child Nutrition) to the university in the early 1990s.
She mentored thousands of students and many faculty members during her time on campus. Kathy Knight, associate professor of nutrition and hospitality management who joined the faculty in 1985, is one of those who learned so much from Phillips.
“She really helped me as a young faculty member,” Knight said. “When I got here, I was green as grass and didn’t know anything. She showed me how to be a professional young woman when, back then, there weren’t very many role models for us.”
With her calming influence, Phillips served as a mentor, adviser and confidant to both teachers and students, Knight said.
“I just don’t know anyone who went into her office and didn’t come out feeling better,” Knight said.
Phillips caring nature and calm demeanor didn’t ever prevent her from taking a stand for what she thought was right. Home economics programs faced elimination in the 1980s, but Phillips, who was then chair, made students aware the program was in peril. They began protests that ultimately saved it.
She went to Jackson to advocate on behalf of keeping home economics at Ole Miss and never wavered in her conviction that it was important.
“She had a backbone of forged steel,” Knight said. “She saved our department.”
Phillips began her teaching career in 1954 at Hurricane High School in Pontotoc County and went from there to University High School in Oxford. After three years, she became a member of the home economics faculty at Ole Miss, teaching family life, nutrition and marriage-focused courses.
Her life’s work was teaching and upgrading nutrition programs throughout the state and nation.
Phillips won many awards, including the university’s Outstanding Teacher Award, the School of Education’s Outstanding Teacher Award, Magnolia Award, Mississippi Dietetics Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Profession of Nutrition and the Leston L. Love Award for Outstanding Service in the Area of Students and Mortar Board, among others.
She was a member of Omicron Delta Kappa, an honorary fraternity that honors excellence in scholarship, leadership and service at the university.
Jim Payne, dean of the School of Education in the 1980s, was among Phillips’ friends and colleagues. At that time, home economics was part of the school, and Phillips was chair.
“She was so impressive in person and kind and soft-spoken, but you didn’t have to be around her long to know she was principled,” Payne said. “I saw her as a real pioneer, and she was always exploring uncharted waters.”
Payne, who had never been a dean before coming to Ole Miss, remembers there not being enough money in the budget for phones; all the lines were cut off except one at the secretary’s desk that the entire department had to use. Buildings weren’t being heating and cooled. There were hiring freezes. The roof leaked and there was no money to fix it. The department even ran out of paper.
Phillips knew of creative ways to get resources for her program when the state budget situation was dire, he said. The program not only continued, but flourished under her leadership.
“She made me look better,” Payne said.
Payne, who had been in the restaurant business before getting into higher education, noticed the cafeteria that home economics operated had no walk-in cooler, which is essential for any restaurant. He and Phillips decided to have a telethon to raise the money for a cooler, which cost around $50,000.
When it came, Phillips knew exactly how to celebrate its arrival.
“Jeanette had me come over there, and me and (the home economics faculty) got in the cooler,” Payne said. “It was about the size of a large closet, and we walked in and all had champagne.
“We just celebrated in that cooler. I will never forget that moment.”
Upon learning the U.S. Department of Agriculture was hoping to establish an institute for child nutrition professionals, Phillips led the charge to have it established at UM. Her efforts, along with the help of others on campus, led to the National Food Service Management Institute being located here.
At first, the center had no building, but after getting it located here, she secured funds for the building and other needs. The street that passes in front of it is named for Phillips.
Charlotte Oakley, who helped Phillips with efforts to land the center, also served as its director later. Phillips taught Oakley and served on her graduate committee. They became friends and colleagues, and Phillips was her professional mentor for more than 50 years.
Oakley said part of what made her so adept at being an administrator is that she made everyone around her feel like they mattered.
“She always magically seemed to have time for everyone,” Oakley said. “She never looked at her watch when you were with her. She just had the ability to draw you in and make you feel important to her.
“She had a real gift for engaging other people and getting you interested in something that is bigger and better than just the day-to-day things.”
Besides her storied academic career, Phillips was the first woman to serve on the board of directors for the Oxford-Lafayette Chamber of Commerce in 1974-77. She and her husband, Jesse Phillips, also owned and operated Jeannie’s Hallmark Shoppe and Rebel Press Office Supply Co. for decades.
She was an active member of First Baptist Church of Oxford from 1954 until her death.
“I don’t think there is any question Dr. Phillips was a gracious Southern lady of faith,” Oakley said. “She had the most amazing ability to balance life.
“She had family. She always put God first, her family second and her job third. I could talk about her all day. She is just greatly missed.”
Her survivors include two sons, Andy Phillips and Tim Phillips and his wife, Terri, both of Oxford, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Her husband of 60 years, Jessie P. Phillips, and a son, Dan Phillips, preceded her in death.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Daniel M. Phillips Memorial Scholarship at University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Avenue, Oxford, MS 38655.