Jim Phillips was taking a walk near his Montgomery 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, undergrad students in the Aurora University Museum Studies Program’s Exhibit Design class have researched and opened a new exhibit, “Face the Fox: Environmental Activists on the Fox River,” at the Little White School Museum, 72 Polk St., Oswego.
The exhibit, which kicked off with a special open house on May 3, will continue in the museum’s Roger Matile Room through August. Admission is free.
To create the exhibit, students made extensive use of the Little White School Museum’s collections, 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 collecting and then dumping a bucket of sludge a U.S. Steel plant was pumping into Lake Michigan on 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 up in everything 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 Ill. Route 25 in Oswego and visit The Fox Memorial. The memorial, financed by private donations, was erected following Phillips’ 2006 death to commemorate his dedication to preserving the Fox Valley’s ecosystem.
The Little White School Museum, a fully restored former Methodist-Episcopal Church and elementary school built in 1850, is a joint project of the non-profit Oswegoland Heritage Association and the Oswegoland Park District.
Regular hours are Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Mondays, 4 to 9 p.m. The museum is closed to visitors on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
For more information, call the museum at 630-554-2999, visit littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.