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Who Was That Masked Man?

A beloved teacher is laid to rest, but not before his secret identity as a notorious eco-saboteur is revealed.



Every year around Christmas bald eagles fly down from Wisconsin to feed on fish in the Fox River. You can see them from the Illinois Street bridge, just north of downtown Aurora. The bird's broad brown wings and golden feathers frame a hooked bill that dips furtively into the water, pulling up smallmouth bass and bluegill. In their quick, sudden motions, they look a little sneaky.

Jim Phillips would like that.

Phillips was a science teacher who became the anonymous environmental activist known as "the Fox." During the 1960s and '70s he waged a guerrilla war against industrial polluters, plugging factory sewage pipes and dumping sludge in corporate offices to dramatize the plight of the Fox River and other area waterways. The alias helped him avoid prosecution, though he also used it to draw publicity. His causes were championed by Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko, and his tactics were celebrated in his own 30-page comic book (printed on recycled paper), Tales of the Fox: Pollution Fighter. The attention attracted followers, who helped carry out his campaigns. In 1999 Phillips looked back on his career as the Fox in a self-published book, Raising Kane, which he penned under the pseudonym "Ray Fox." His surreptitious work had brought results: by the late 80s the Fox River was clean enough for the bald eagles to rediscover it.

On the last Sunday in November, 60 compatriots gathered at the Illinois Street bridge to hold a memorial service for Phillips, who died in October at the age of 70. It was the first public acknowledgment that Phillips was the Fox.

The friends included members of the Voyageurs, a group of eight preservationists who regularly travel area waterways in 21-foot birch-bark canoes, replicas of the crafts deployed by the region's early French explorers. As a Voyageur Phillips paddled Lake Michigan and the Mississippi, but he was partial to a portion of the Fox River that runs southwest from downtown Aurora. This 12-mile stretch features Illinois' last stand of red pines, left from when the North Woods receded thousands of years ago.

The ceremony was organized by Voyageur Ralph Frese, a blacksmith who built the group's canoes and runs the Chicagoland Canoe Base, a shop on Narragansett near Irving Park. "In the late 1960s I started reading about this guy plugging sewers and fighting to save the river," says Frese, who wears a Native American beaded moose-hide pouch. "I was working on preserving the lower end of the Fox River. A mutual friend of ours brought me to the edge of a forest preserve thicket in Kendall County. I heard a voice coming out of the bush. It was the Fox checking me out to see if I was a predator or a friend. This is how we met."

Aurora elementary school teacher Holly Frieders had brought Phillips's Voyageurs outfit, which was fashioned after 17th-century garb. It looked appropriately like a Robin Hood costume. She held up the moccasins, leggings, and overshirt, and explained that she shows them to her students when they study Native American history.

Four Voyageurs then paddled against the brisk breeze to the middle of the river. Chuck McEnery, a former Jesuit priest, carried a varnished box containing Phillips's ashes. The box was made of oak from the Phillips family's former homestead in Montgomery, just south of Aurora. McEnery snapped a canoe paddle over his right knee, signaling the end of Phillips's voyage. As the ashes settled into the water, a flock of wild geese flew over the Fox.

Phillips was born in a three-flat near Addison and Damen. His father, Albert, had come to Chicago to work as a janitor during the Depression. His mother, Rose, managed the household, raising three sons and two daughters. In 1933 the family moved to Montgomery, where Albert purchased his parents' 23-acre asparagus farm. "That set Jim's attitude towards nature," says Dorothy Spring, Phillips's older sister. "It was such a contrast from Chicago."

A big man, Phillips had thick hands that looked like plowshares. The Voyageurs gave him the ironic nickname "Little Snowflake."

Dick Young was a lifelong friend. He was Kane County's first environmental director, and he helped create Kendall County's forest preserve system. As a teenager, he cut asparagus with Phillips on the family's farm. "When we were young we used to hike together," says Young, who lives in a stone house with a grass roof that he built near the Fox River in Oswego. "Every time Jim found a new plant, he would come and find me."

Phillips earned a biology degree from Northern Illinois University in 1959. Throughout the 60s he taught biology at junior highs and high schools in the west and south suburbs.

Spring, also a former schoolteacher, recalls that her brother was teaching his students about air pollution two years before the founding of the Environ-mental Protection Agency. "In 1968 Jim had eighth-graders," she says. "They can be pretty sharp, you know. They wondered why Jim drove to work and polluted the air. He was teaching in Oak Lawn. He told his students he couldn't get there any other way. But Jim said, 'If you feel strong enough about this, you can put messages on my truck.'"

Soon Phillips was driving a protest vehicle. "They were not allowed to use profanity or outrageous messages. Jim got some 'fingers' and he got some 'thumbs-up' on the way home. I think that was the beginning."

One spring afternoon in 1969 Phillips was walking with his dog in the rolling fields south of Montgomery. He ran into a fox. Spring says, "He didn't know who was more surprised--he or the fox. They just stood and looked at each other for a minute. Then the fox took off and the last he saw was the plume of its tail."

A few yards away was Mill Creek, which empties into the Fox River. Phillips saw several ducklings, but when he returned the next day the ducklings were dead.

"He was mad," Spring says. "He realized the stream was polluted. He followed the stream and walked towards the Armour-Dial plant. The pollutants were coming from there."

Phillips's encounter with the soap plant was a defining moment. The company had been operating on a 1962 contract with the Aurora Sanitary District, which allowed Armour-Dial to dump 830 pounds of suspended solids into the district's sewer system each day. The concentration was not to exceed 200 milligrams of suspended solids per liter of waste, but Armour-Dial consistently surpassed the limit, causing the district's waste treatment facilities to overflow into the Fox River. The sanitary district had done nothing about the problem.

Dick Young was reporting to the Kendall County board on what Armour-Dial was dumping into the creek, but no action was taken. "At the time everyone was afraid of scaring Armour off," Young says. "The salvation to every problem was to attract more industry for the tax base. No one ever said anything against any of it."

Phillips decided to do something. One of his first stunts was to plug a culvert, which forced waste to back up into the Armour-Dial plant. Before leaving the scene, he quickly drew the face of a fox on the cover of the drainpipe.

In 1971 he organized an underground chain of saboteurs, who put Fox stickers on bars of Dial soap at supermarkets in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, and Arkansas. The stickers issued a warning: "Armour Dial kills our water" or "Armour Dial pollutes our air." Mike Royko called Phillips's attack "the most ambitious antipollution prank of his colorful career." The prank was such a success that an independent boycott was launched of all Armour-Dial products.

Young says a variety of normally law-abiding people got involved in the sticker campaign, including a member of the Kane County Board, who told him, "I never was as scared in my life as the day I put the stickers on bars of soap at my drugstore."

In an anonymous interview, Phillips told the Tribune, "Our job is to find the guy who makes the decisions and embarrass him. If he comes home and his wife is screaming because someone has thrown a skunk in the house, he'll change things back at the office."

Phillips found a lot of allies in the press. In 1970 Royko tagged along on a visit to U.S. Steel's Chicago office. A receptionist wondered about the receptacle Phillips was carrying and began to wrestle it out of his hands. A gallon of industrial sewage spilled onto a fancy beige carpet. On a subsequent visit Phillips delivered a small casket containing a frog and a perch allegedly killed by the toxic sludge he'd gathered from a pipe feeding into Lake Michigan from U.S. Steel's plant in Gary. Young says, "There was a good deal more interest in protecting Lake Michigan than the Fox River."

The Fox's seven-year battle against Armour-Dial eventually caught the attention of the Illinois attorney general. In 1975 the state sued Armour-Dial's Montgomery plant for violating Illinois pollution standards.

Back when the battle was just beginning, Phillips had taken an evening stroll near Mill Creek. He wandered onto the grounds of the Armour-Dial plant carrying a bag of cement, lime, screens, and wood slabs. He intended to plug another drainpipe, but ran away after spotting a police car. That was the closest the Fox ever came to getting trapped.

Phillips never married and never had children. But he never underestimated a teenager's attraction to clandestine rebellion. During the early 70s he created "Friends of the Fox," a loose network of high school students at Aurora West, Proviso West, and Naperville Central. I was one of them.

In 1972 I was editor of the school paper at Naperville Central. Phillips sent me Armour-Dial stickers and leaflets. One time he had us pose as mourners in a mock funeral for the Fox River. I got tips from him over the phone. He called himself "Rey" (short for the French renard). He disguised his voice with mechanical devices. I think he got almost as big a kick out of this as I did. Other times a "lieutenant" using his real name would phone in with a new mission.

In the spring of that year the Fox sent out a call to arms for students at Naperville Central and Aurora West. We painted dozens of 55-gallon drums a dark ecology green. In bright white paint we wrote "Litter here. Fox and Friends." Students distributed the drums all over Kane, Cook, Du Page, and Kendall counties. Accompanied by my best friend Steve, I sneaked a half dozen drums onto the campus of Naperville Central. We had a couple left over, so late one night Steve and I rolled them down the street about half a mile into downtown Naperville.

Phillips was a good teacher. He was way ahead of the recycling movement. "His mission was a progression of getting things turned around," Young says. "When the EPA came in, they ignored a lot."

Young says Phillips once discovered that cans of paint Cargill had dumped in a Carpentersville gravel pit were leaking into the Fox River. "The state EPA wasn't interested."

Late one night, Young says, Phillips threw a stink bomb through Cargill's front window. (He left behind a money order for $36.48 to replace the glass.) "Jim had staked out the police route around Carpentersville and what they visited at night," Young says. "He timed it. The cops came, right on schedule, and Jim ran up the road and said, 'Someone is breaking into Cargill!' Well, they were pretty indignant the next day.

"The police came to me and said, 'We understand you know something about the Fox.' I didn't know Jim had done this, but I said, 'You want to take a ride with me, we'll look at the situation.' There was a sheen of ice along the river's shore and lots of paint had run out on the ice. Then I said, 'Look down the river and that's where the City of Elgin's water intake is. They are drinking this stuff. You tell me if a civilized society has to put up with this kind of crap.' The police came over to our side."

By this time Phillips had left teaching to become a field inspector for the Kane County environmental department, where Young was his boss. He says, "I asked Jim to work inside the law. We had a mess with corrupt agencies. I knew he was clever enough to overcome those difficulties. And today Kane County is on the cutting edge of preserving prime agricultural land."

Phillips made a difference.

The Fox helped change the way we think about our waterways. Scenic bike trails have been built over old railroad tracks along the Fox River. Young says, "When the trails were first going in around the mid-1970s there was strenuous objection from riparian neighbors--'Not in my backyard!' Now people are seeking it in their backyard."

On Earth Day, April 20, 2002, Phillips and folksinger Pete Seeger will receive the Living Treasures of North America Heritage Award from the Prairyerth Fellowship in Hinsdale. "This one-man campaigner against environmental polluters never cost life or injury to any person," says Prairyerth cochair Melinda Perrin, who spoke at the memorial service for Phillips. "But his pranks targeted against the guilty sure were stinky, messy, funny, and to the point." Last month the Oswegoland Park District voiced unanimous support for a committee seeking to erect a permanent memorial to Phillips on the bank of the Fox River.

Young visited Phillips on the night he died. A nurse asked whether he could feed his friend.

"He wouldn't eat," Young recalls. "He asked me, 'We were doing the right things, weren't we? I'm worried.' I told him, 'I'm sure you did the right thing, Jim.'"

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