Merle Phillips passes away at 85
Former State Rep. Merle H. Phillips, who served in the state legislature for 30 years before a 13-month stint as Northumberland County Commissioner in his retirement, passed away Monday at the age of 85.
A former U.S. Marine and owner of Irish Valley Food Processing, Phillips was best known for representing the residents of the 108th State Legislative District, first winning the seat in a special election in 1980, then being re-elected 15 times before his retirement in 2010.
He wasn't always a political forerunner; he lost in his first two elections - the Republican primary to be Northumberland County treasurer in 1975, and as the Republican candidate for county commissioner in 1979.
President Judge Robert Sacavage, who was running for county district attorney at the time, met Phillips on the campaign trail.
"We had met at the same campaign functions and you bond over the same salty hot dogs and rubber chicken," Sacavage said. "In those days, people in politics were a lot friendlier."
Sacavage called Phillips "the quintessential old Dutch uncle you would always go to for advice when you needed it."
On March 11, 1980, Phillips defeated John Kreitzer by a 2-1 margin, winning 44 of 45 precincts in a special election for the seat in the 108th District to succeed George Wagner, who vacated the seat to become Montour County district attorney.
During his tenure in the House, Phillips served as Republican caucus administrator, Republican chairman and vice chairman of the Game and Fisheries Committee, secretary of the Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, and as a member of Transportation and Appropriations Committee.
A veteran of the Korean War, he served in the U.S. Marines, and was a staunch advocate for veterans' issues. He also supported sportsmen's issues and helped lead the fight against the tolling of Interstate 80.
While he worked in the legislature, a young intern named Lynda Schlegel began to work for him. She was later hired by Phillips and served as his aide for 21 years before she, current state Rep. Lynda Schlegel-Culver, succeeded him in the legislature following his retirement.
"Anyone who knew him, knew how good he was through and through. I still use a lot of the lessons that he has taught me, such as always keeping faith and family first, and remembering that you are representing the 63,000 constituents in your district," Culver said.
Rep. Bob Belfanti worked many times with Phillips over his 30-year tenure as state legislature.
"Merle Phillips was the perfect gentlemen, a great man and an outstanding statesman," Belfanti said. "There were dozens of projects that we worked together on during our time in office, always to help those we serve in our districts."
"When you first met Merle, you saw this quiet Dutchman from the southern part of this district, but he was as sly and clever as a fox," said state Sen. John Gordner. "There was always something he was doing behind the scenes and what could he do to benefit the people of his district."
One thing that made Phillips a success in politics and a respected member of the legislature was how he was willing to work with anyone.
"For Merle and Bob, the lines between parties or districts were always blurred," Gordner said. "A big case in point was former Gov. Ed Rendell. Here was this liberal Democrat as governor and this conservative Republican and sportsman in Merle, and the two got together and worked on the riverfront project in Sunbury."
"With Merle, you could be on opposite sides of an issue all day long, but still have dinner together afterwards," said Belfanti.
He retired from the legislature in 2010, but that retirement lasted about four days; he was chosen among 25 candidates to fill the county commissioner seat of Kurt Masser, who won election to the state legislature in the 107th district.
"I can remember as a county commissioner calling him in Harrisburg, and now the roles were reversed, and I was very happy to help him in his new role," Masser said. "I was honored to call him a friend."
"It was my pleasure to work with him as a county commissioner," Vinny Clausi said. "He was one of the greatest human beings I've ever known. He was a kind, nice man and always did what was best for the taxpayers of Northumberland County."
Sacavage said the decision to name Phillips to the post was easy.
"When you have a person that has this much experience at the job, you don't need that much discussion."
At the end of his time in the county seat, Phillips revealed that he was battling myeloma, a form of blood cancer.
"In recent days, he was very reflective about his time, and you could see that he just didn't have the fight in him anymore," Culver said. "When I saw him last week, I knew that it probably was the last time I would see him."
Phillips was a resident of Upper Augusta Township and is survived by his wife, Helen; his children, Sandra, Jane, Michael, Christine and Lorri; 12 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and a brother, Fred and his wife, Lauretta Phillips.
He was a dedicated community volunteer, belonging to many charitable and service organizations over the years, namely the U.S. Marine Corps League's Toys for Tots program.
Funeral arrangements will be forthcoming, according to Culver.