Remembering Art Phillips

On April 26, a Friday, admirers, family members, friends, public servants, entrepreneurs, opportunists, and general citizens gathered to remember prominent businessman and politician Art Phillips. The Pacific Ballroom in the Hotel Vancouver is a stunner, with crystal chandeliers and plaster mouldings picked out in gold and silver leaf, yet until the memorial began, attention was directed not to the room’s appurtenances but to the hundreds who filled it: both Adrian Dix (deep in chat with Bob Rennie) and Christy Clark (emcee Bill Good would begin with the quip, “They’ve put their campaigns on hold for a couple of hours to be with us, proving that hell can freeze over-for a period of time”); Mayor Gregor Robertson and top staff Mike Magee and Penny Ballem and Jim Chu (wearing “all the bling today” in his dress uniform); former attorney-general Wally Oppal and former Fantasy Gardens feuder Faye Leung. Former premier Gordon Campbell, who had flown in from London for his old friend and mentor, sat often alone amid the crowd of diverse politicos like Norman Stowe and Lyall Knott and Colin Hansen and Elizabeth Ball and academics and parents with babies and, really, anyone hep enough to recognize this as a moment when the city moves a little closer toward whatever it’s destined to become, a destination made possible-in part-by the forward-looking acumen of the man of the hour.

On the screen, a photograph of Phillips late in life, in French cuffs and vest, wrists crossed, hair brushed just so, handsome and lively. Alex Waterhouse-Hayward, who took it, said to me: “You should be happy I never photographed you. They all die.” “In the Mood” was on the speakers until the piper entered, the choir sang (“Loch Lomond”), and Good introduced the speakers: 75-year buddy, architect Barry Downs, who built the family’s first house in West Van (his first private commission) and who recalled Phillips’s self-penned caption in the 1947 Lord Byng annual: “So versatile his future is yet unknown.” John Montalbano, hired out of university to help Phillips with the investment firm he’d cofounded in 1964 at age 34 (“Vancouver was important-it was geographically the midpoint between New York City and the beaches of Hawaii,” he joked) and part of the package when Phillips, Hager & North was sold in 2008 for $1.4 billion. Phillips bankrolled the firm in its early years, Montalbano noted, from his own funds (he was already a millionaire by the time he gained the mayor’s chair in 1973) but insisted Rudy North and Bob Hager profit equally: “That single gesture was the secret of Phillips, Hager & North’s success for years to come.” And political compatriots the Hon. Jack Austin and Supreme Court Justice Grant Burnyeat, who name-checked the brain trust of those times: Phillips and TEAM (The Electors’ Action Movement) mates Mike Harcourt and Darlene Marzari and planner Walter Hardwick and city manager Fritz Bowers and architect Geoff Massey and councillor William Gibson and “the greatest mayor that Vancouver never elected,” Mae Brown.

The reminiscences-about stopping the freeway and opening up the democratic process and building False Creek South and being generally a standup guy who held to his word-finished with full hearts but dry eyes, as his widow, Carole Taylor, requested. Good spoke for her: “Art wouldn’t want anything too formal. It wasn’t his style. So we ask that you make the afternoon uplifting and personal.” And they did.

Some of his six children spoke as well. Eldest daughter Sue Biddle and youngest Samantha Kadera remembered their dad with warmth. Middle daughter Lisa Jones followed up with a note to me, saying that for all the wonderful recognition of his accomplishments at council and in business, we had perhaps not heard enough of her father’s fearless élan for investment and his puckish humor. She mentioned the pet he’d always wanted, which he bought soon after he and first wife Patricia Phillips (née Burley) married: a stump-tailed macaque named Zsa Zsa (after Gabor) who wore a diaper except the one famous day she didn’t. And she cited business ventures like the Grouse Mountain gondola (there’s still a plaque on the mountain) and the Skookum Slide and Zero Records, which helped launch Loretta Lynn, and the seawall and Granville Island, which wraps back to Justice Burnyeat, who concluded with as kind a eulogy as anyone might hope for: “He was a catalyst of excellence. I’m proud to be a citizen of what I call Phillipsville.”