New AU student exhibit at Oswego museum honors local environmental crusader

When Jim Phillips, the environmental activist calling himself “The Fox” conducted one of his exploits, he always left behind a note signed with this caricature of a fox’s head. Undergrad students in the Aurora University Museum Studies Program’s Exhibit Design class will unveil “Face the Fox: Environmental Activists on the Fox River,” a special exhibit honoring Phillips and other local activists during a public open house at the Little White School Museum on May 3.

Jim Phillips was taking a walk near his home one day in the mid-1960s, when he came across some ducks that had been killed by industrial waste from a local factory. A junior high biology teacher by day, the discovery and the fact that what few environmental laws existed were virtually penalty free spurred him to become a secret environmental crusader in his spare time.

The descendant of one of the Oswego area’s earliest pioneer families, Phillips assumed the alias of “The Fox,” using a cartoon fox head as the signature on his anti-pollution exploits.

To honor Phillips’ contribution to the nation’s environmental movement, undergraduate students in the Aurora University museum studies program’s Exhibit Design class have researched and assembled a new exhibit, “Face the Fox: Environmental Activists on the Fox River,” set to open with a public open house Tuesday, May 3, at the Little White School Museum, 72 Polk St., Oswego. Open house hours will be from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors will have a chance to tour the new exhibit, chat with the students responsible for mounting it, and visit the museum gallery with its exhibits recounting the Oswego area’s rich history.

The exhibit will continue in the museum’s Roger Matile Room through August. Admission is free.

To create the exhibit, students worked over the past few months making extensive use of the collections of the Little White School Museum, including artifacts, documents and photographs related to Phillips’ exploits.

Early on, Phillips decided to use a combination of publicity and humor to draw attention to serious environmental issues including air and water pollution in the Fox River Valley and beyond. One of his most famous exploits was dumping a bucket of the sludge a U.S. Steel plant was pumping into Lake Michigan onto the white carpet in U.S. Steel’s corporate office in downtown Chicago. The event was covered by famed columnist Mike Royko, garnering national attention to the pollution problem. Eventually, Phillips’ exploits were written about in publications from local weekly newspapers to Time and National Geographic magazines.

Many environmentalists credit the publicity Phillips garnered with helping to educate governments, from state and local up through the federal government, about the seriousness of the pollution problem that eventually led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as its offshoots at the state and local levels.

After touring the special exhibit and the museum gallery, visitors are invited to stop at Violet Patch Park, 1425 Route 25 in Oswego, and visit The Fox Memorial. The memorial, financed by private donations, was erected after Phillips’ 2006 death to commemorate his dedication to preserving the Fox Valley’s ecosystem.

Regular museum hours are from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and 4 to 9 p.m. Monday. The museum is closed to visitors Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

For information, call the museum at 630-554-2999, visit or email