In February, The Sylva Herald featured Phyllis Fox on the front page; it was to join with town of Sylva officials in honoring the pioneering, female small-business owner for receiving the annual Volunteer Service Citizen of the Year award.
Everyone, including Phyllis, knew because of cancer, her time could be limited. Indeed, this fine person left the good earth on July 19 at age 75. The ceremony I attended that night at Town Hall was joyful, however, not sad. The gathering served as an opportunity to highlight Phyllis’ devotion to the town, honor her work with young people and celebrate her efforts on behalf of numerous groups and programs. She was co-owner of Sylva Insurance Agency for more than 50 years; served on the local hospital board; spearheaded downtown revitalization efforts; helped found the Jackson County Athletic Hall of Fame; and much, much more than I could possibly list here.
She had tears in her eyes. I didn’t know Phyllis particularly well, but her tearing up made me tear up, too. She was so clearly and openly touched by the outpouring of respect and love. What struck me, too, was the complete absence of, the total irrelevance toward, the absolute who-gives-a-darn about partisan politics. No one gave it a thought. It simply did not matter. Phyllis was a diehard Republican. She served for years as local party chair. Most of those who were so proudly touting her accomplishments? They are equally devoted Democrats. Phyllis was a delightful person, said Frank Burrell, a former Jackson County school superintendent and Sylva-Webster High School principal. He serves as chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party. “She was special. I can’t say enough about her,” he said. I called him to check the accuracy of my line of thought: This political polarization we are experiencing isn’t necessary. People can respect and enjoy those of different persuasions, while holding firm to and fighting for one’s beliefs … as Phyllis Fox helped demonstrate.
Frank agreed, saying he thought I was onto something worth pursuing. So I’m trying, though I admit it’s difficult to fully articulate what I’ve been pondering on since she died. No, since before she died. I’m weary of watching Americans being so blasted hateful toward one another, because one is a Democrat, another is a Republican. And within those two broad categories, liberals fighting with moderates; moderate conservatives fighting with hardline conservatives.
Frank and Phyllis had fundamental disagreements, politically speaking. But, they didn’t throw their individual, so-called “values” in each other’s faces in vain attempts to gain some nonexistent moral high ground. Because, actually, these two shared basic values. A belief in selfless community service; respect for every individual; giving children opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.
If it was about helping kids, Phyllis was a veritable ball of energy, according to Frank, who likewise devoted his professional career to the same pursuit. “When I was at the high school, when we started a boosters’ club, she worked tirelessly to see it through. Any project, she was always willing to help. She just thought about the kids, that came first for her,” he said. Burrell hesitated, then said he figures Phyllis probably worked as hard to advance Republican ideals.
He said, “whatever she focused on, she went full bore.” “Phyllis was a strong Republican. But, I never saw that side,” he said. “She could rise above. We never had a problem.”
Quintin Ellison is editor of The Sylva Herald. Published with permission from The Sylva Herald.