James F. Phillips, whose antipollution activities under the alter-ego “The Fox” gave rise to the more controversial environmental activism movement of the 1980s, has died. He was 70.
Phillips died Oct. 3 at Countryside Care Center in Aurora, Ill., where he had lived since June because of complications from diabetes.
A former science teacher and environmental advocate, Phillips grew up partly on his family’s farm in Montgomery, Ill., where the environment became his lifelong passion. He earned a degree in biology from Northern Illinois University, and later taught middle school in Oak Lawn and Hillside, Ill., for 10 years.
A group of dead ducks he spotted near Illinois’ Fox River in the late 1960s prompted him to take direct action: He stopped up a sewer pipe draining an overflow basin upstream at the Armour-Dial Co. factory in Montgomery. Almost as an afterthought, he signed his handiwork with a drawing of the head of a fox, he told The Tribune in a 1999 interview.
Other acts included plugging smokestacks and dumping pollution at the homes and offices of executives of companies that polluted. When U.S. Steel adopted the slogan “We’re Involved,” he erected a 70-foot-long banner that said, “We’re Involved in Killing Lake Michigan.”
Environmental groups later credited Phillips with inspiring others to take action against industrial polluters, while at least one conservative think tank described him as the first notorious eco-saboteur.
Even after clean-air and -water laws prompted him to scale back his strikes, Phillips never officially revealed his identity as The Fox.
“He tried to disguise himself, but it was a thin disguise,” said longtime friend Ralph Frese, owner of the Chicagoland Canoe Base.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Phillips was a field inspector for the Kane County Environmental Department, retiring in January 1986 to start the Fox River Conservation Foundation.
A history buff with a special interest in colonial New England, Phillips participated in a 1973 reenactment of the expedition of Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet down the Mississippi River. He also helped write a book titled “The History of Montgomery.”
He wrote another book, “Raising Kane,” about his adventures as The Fox, under the assumed name Ray Fox.
Survivors include two brothers, Herb and Albert Phillips; and two sisters, Dorothy Spring and Margaret Webb.