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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Fox

Air Date: Week of

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Environmental activist James F. Phillips, a.k.a. The Fox, died earlier this month at the age of 70. His sister Dorothy Spring talks with host Steve Curwood about her brother's covert eco-activities.


CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. Most folks in Aurora, Illinois, knew James Phillips as a quiet, eighth-grade science teacher. But he had a secret life, and signed his covert work with the code-name, "The Fox." The Fox was never caught in his acts of environmental protest, which included putting metal caps on belching smokestacks and leaving skunks at the doors of the executives of polluting corporations. Mr. Phillips died in early October at age 70. We spoke to his sister, Dorothy Spring, who says that pollution from a local soap factory started The Fox off on his secret life as a non-violent eco-saboteur.

SPRING: He was taking a hike one day and he saw this little stream called Mill Creek, and in the stream there were some soap curds, but there were also a little family of ducks, and the ducks were having a hard time. And he picked them up and kind of cleaned them off and then he set them back in. The next day, he came back, the ducks were all dead. And there was something about that that just made him so angry. And he just couldn't get over it. And he decided to plug up the effluent.

CURWOOD: What would happen when he plugged up the sewer?

SPRING: Well, it backed up into the plants, so that they got a taste of their own medicine, and that was his idea of justice.

CURWOOD: It sounds like his work might not have been that much of a secret. In fact, there were some articles in newspapers and magazines about him, back in the 1970s.

SPRING: There was, but they didn't know who it was. They only suspected. He was working by himself at that time; for the first few times, he was working by himself.

CURWOOD: What did you think about it?

SPRING: Well, at first, I thought the companies deserved what they got, but I was afraid he was going to get in trouble, but he just never did. And especially when he plugged up the plant's sewer, the pipe was several feet underground and he had to go down in there and crawl through. And that was dangerous, because if they had had a big effluent, he would have drowned down there, in the pipe.

CURWOOD: Why did he think the police never caught up with him?

SPRING: It's enough to say that the police realized, after several months, that not only was he right about the soap factory, but he was not hurting anybody. Never did. Nobody ever was hurt by it, and certainly, nobody was ever killed by it. And for a long time, it was only suspicion, but eventually it became an open secret.


SPRING: That was The Fox, yeah.

CURWOOD: Dorothy Spring's brother, James Phillips, was an environmental activist who died recently, at the age of 70. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

SPRING: You're welcome.



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