Last Saturday was one of those days I’ll remember for the rest of my life. That was the day I accepted an incredible, very personal honor – the Dan Phillips Leadership Award from the National Newspaper Association.
I paraphrased the great line from Sen. Lloyd Benson during my acceptance speech – “I knew Dan Phillips. Dan Phillips was a friend of mine. I am certainly no Dan Phillips.”
When my wife Lisa and Mississippi Press Association Executive Director Layne Bruce actually broke the news to me that I was selected for the award, I was rather speechless. I was still speechless when I stepped to the podium to accept the award during NNA’s 123rd annual convention at the downtown Renaissance in Mobile, Alabama.
Dan Phillips, a longtime editor and publisher of the Oxford Eagle, was more than a mentor. He was a great friend. He was actually more like family. The Denley and Phillips families have been intertwined for years. We own the South Reporter in Holly Springs with the Phillips family and Will Norton, new dean of the school of journalism at Ole Miss. But our connection with the Phillips goes far beyond business.
We’ve been there for all the highs and lows in both our families. Among those highs was Dan’s induction as president of NNA in Boston. My in-laws, Gale and Jo Ann Denley, made that trip to Massachusetts with me and Lisa because we all wanted to be there for Dan.
On a side note, one of the lasting stories from that trip was our encounter in the incredibly crowded Boston airport. We were trying to get to our gate when we heard someone yelling “Mr. Denley.” We could never go anywhere that he didn’t run into someone he knew.
The following March, Lisa and I were in Washington, D.C. for the NNA Governmental Affairs Conference. Dan took the Mississippi delegation out to eat at his favorite Italian restaurant in Georgetown one night. It was like a scene out of “The Godfather” with the long red and white checkered cloth covered table, surrounded by family and friends. They kept bringing giant bowls of every kind of pasta imaginable and I kept lapping it all up, sitting next to Dan, having an unforgettable night.
A few short years later, Dan died from complications resulting from a kidney transplant at the young age of 47. It was a surreal experience. I’ll never forget the visitation that went hours beyond the allotted time because of the incredible crowds. Dan was such a leader in the community, such a beloved man, everyone was determined to pay their respects.
Many of the lessons learned from Dan were the same I tried to take in from my father-in-law. He passed away just over a year ago and there is rarely a day that passes when I don’t have an occasion to ask myself, “What would Buddy do?”
Standing at the podium, I looked out at the crowded room of newspaper professionals from all over the country and zeroed in on some of Mississippi’s best – Bill Jacobs of the Brookhaven Daily Leader, Patsy Speights of the Prentiss Headlight, Tom Andrews from the Picayune Item, John Carney from the Lawrence County Free Press, Jimmy Clark of the Vicksburg Post, and Layne Bruce with MPA, to name a few.
Then I locked in on my family – my wife Lisa, sister-in-law Celia Hillhouse and husband Lanny, mother-in-law Jo Ann Denley, Sid Salter and wife Leilani, and Dan’s brother Tim Phillips. Then it became even more apparent who wasn’t there – Dan and my father-in-law, two of the most influential people in my journalism career.
They were as responsible as anybody for me standing up there representing my newspaper, my family, and my community. It’s the memories shared and many lessons learned from them that I will carry for a lifetime. They helped add to those memories last Saturday.
You may email Joel McNeece at email@example.com