Ambassador to Italy proud of Leechburg roots, Italian heritage
Being the son of a car dealer held certain perks for a teenage John R. Phillips growing up in Leechburg in the 1950s.
His father, William Phillips, owned the Ford dealership there. When he was 9 or 10 years old, his father paid him 10 cents an hour to wash the used cars. Once he got a license, he was able to drive them and always had a different car at school.
Then there were the really old cars, the trade-ins that weren't worth much of anything. Those were the cars Phillips and his friends took “wooding.”
“We would take the oldest, least valuable car — maybe it was worth $30 or $40 back in those days. We would drive them out in the woods. We'd call it ‘going wooding' in the car,” he said. “We'd drive around the trails. They'd be totally unusable after that. I'd get the title and sell it to the junk yard for $20 or $30 and give the money to my dad.”
That Phillips would share that story as he is about to assume the position of United States ambassador to Italy and San Marino shows a “pretty wholesome” man, said Mario Sorisio of Allegheny Township, a lifelong friend and one of those who went “wooding” back in those days.
“When I see John, I see almost the same person. I see a friend,” said Sorisio, 71, a retired elementary teacher and antique shop owner who graduated from Leechburg High School with Phillips in 1960. “He reaches out to people. I see him doing the same thing in his ambassadorship. Why would he stop? He hasn't changed.
“He's a great selection to be an ambassador for President Obama in Italy.”
Obama nominated Phillips in July to replace David Thorne, who had also been nominated by Obama and served since August 2009. Phillips was confirmed by the Senate on Aug. 1.
Before leaving for Rome on Sept. 12, Phillips will return to Leechburg for an informal public reception in his honor at 1 p.m. Sept. 1 at the Marconi Lodge, Leechburg.
“Part of the reason for Johnny to come back is to thank the community, to acknowledge this is where he started, where he spent 18 years of his life — the formative years,” said his cousin, Louis Phillips, 69, of Upper St. Clair, who is helping organize the reception. “To a large extent, Leechburg and the Italian community are responsible for a lot of who he is today.”
Those who knew Phillips are proud, of course, and not surprised at his latest achievement in a life of accomplishment and distinction.
“There was little doubt from the very beginning that John would succeed in this world. He had the intelligence and the desire to excel,” said Jim Steffey, another classmate. “It happened with everything he did. He was always driven.”
Strong Obama supporter
An influential Washington lawyer, Phillips and his wife of 40 years, Linda Douglass, a former ABC and CBS news journalist, have strong ties to Obama.
Douglass was director of communications for the White House Office of Health Reform from 2009 to 2010. She had been a senior strategist and spokeswoman for his presidential campaign, and spokeswoman of the inauguration committee after his November 2008 election.
Phillips was an early supporter of Obama before his election in 2008 and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for each of his election campaigns.
“I did it because I support his policies,” Phillips said. “I think he's done a good job.”
Phillips now chairs the President's Commission on White House Fellowships, which President Clinton appointed him to in 1997.
Phillips was reportedly among three Obama fundraisers interested in the posting in Rome.
“I expressed an interest several years ago,” he said. “The only place I was interested in being an ambassador was Italy.”
Phillips is the grandson of Italian immigrants, whose last name was changed from Filippi. They came to Bridge-ville, Allegheny County, from the Friuli region of northern Italy.
Colussy Chevrolet bears the name of his grandmother, Lucy Colussy. His father had worked there and moved to Leechburg when he struck out on his own.
“My Italian roots are very significant to me,” Phillips said. “I grew up in Italian culture. I've been to Italy many, many times. It's where my family is from.
“Whenever I come to Italy, it was like coming home.”
Phillips has done more than visit.
In 2001, he bought and over eight years redeveloped the ruined remains of an abandoned, 800-year-old farming village “Borgo Finoccchieto” in Tuscany. It now consists of five buildings atop six acres surrounded by farmlands that can accommodate up to 44 guests for weddings, events and retreats.
“By living there and getting to know the people, I know it very well,” he said.
Work as an attorney
Phillips has been called “the nation's premier whistleblower attorney.”
He founded the Center for Law in the Public Interest in 1971 in Los Angeles. As its co-director, he focused on issues such as the environment, civil rights and corporate fraud.
He helped to modernize the dormant Civil War-era Federal False Claims Act to make it useful in combatting fraud against the government.
Once President Reagan signed the amendments into law in 1986, Phillips and his firm initiated lawsuits against corporations that defrauded the government. The government has since recovered more than $55 billion from companies that defrauded it, with Phillips' firm responsible for $11 billion of that amount.
“My life has largely been focused on public service as I view it,” he said. “The work I've done as a lawyer and the many boards I've served on have been focused on public service.”
Being an ambassador, he said, “is furtherance of that interest.”
Phillips will oversee a staff of 750 — 500 of them in Rome.
“This is a job that has many hats,” said G. Philip Hughes, a senior vice president and secretary of the Council of American Ambassadors. Hughes was ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean from 1990 to 1993; he does not know Phillips.
“The ambassador is the personal representative of the president,” Hughes said. “He is the public face of the United States and the government to that country.”
In addition to his ceremonial duties, Phillips will steer an interagency team with representatives of every department and agency in the federal government, each with their own agendas.
“It's a highly public role. It's a multifaceted role,” Hughes said. “It's one not often appreciated.”
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Phillips said engaging Italy on a full range of issues is a crucial job.
“Italy is a leader and contributor to peacekeeping missions worldwide, and has committed to continuing its leadership role in western Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission in that country,” he said. “Italy works hard with us to find resolutions to violence and unrest in many parts of the globe, including Syria and the Middle East. Italy is also an important partner for building regional stability in Northern Africa.
“We are grateful that Italy hosts approximately 15,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel at U.S. and NATO military bases on Italian soil.”
Economic ties with Italy are important for the health of the U.S. economy, with America's being the largest source of foreign investment in Italy.
Phillips testified he would promote exports to Italy and support trade partnerships to boost economic growth in the United States and the European Union.
While his professional life has been in California and the nation's capitol, Phillips said Leechburg has stayed with him, with many memories and old friends.
“I look back with great fondness of my early years in Leechburg,” he said.
Phillips said there's no reason those growing up in Leechburg can't have success in life as he has.
“You gotta come from somewhere, right?” he said. “There's nothing wrong with coming from a small town.
“Growing up in that environment was a very positive experience for me and everybody there.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or [email protected].