Last week, when Don Phillips died suddenly at age 62, we lost a colleague who contributed a great deal to thousands of lives, including students, educators, and community members. I knew Don for nearly 25 years, and I had the honor of working with him when he was a principal, deputy superintendent, and superintendent. Don retired last year as superintendent in Poway Unified, a California district he led with a highly effective approach toward embracing college and career readiness for all students. He had previously served as superintendent of Mountain View-Los Altos and Palo Alto, where he introduced and strengthened AVID and worked tirelessly towards equity and acceleration.
With Don’s passing, I lost a friend who taught me more than he realized. I regret I never got a chance to thank him for all he did for me personally and professionally, as he did for so many others. If I had spoken to him about his influence on me, he would have just smiled, probably issued a compliment, and would have found a way to laugh (he had a great laugh). And then he would have moved us gently back to the work at hand.
In his retirement, Don intended to spend time with his wife, Robyn, and to see more of his grown sons, Reed and Blake, of whom he was so proud. He might even have knocked a few golf balls around, traveled, and, as always, read widely. I was excited and honored that Don wanted to give a bit of time to working with the AVID Center, helping us focus on district-wide college readiness, writing articles, and offering his advice on many of our efforts. We recently had numerous discussions about the future, and I could sense his excitement.
I always came away from meetings with Don feeling better prepared to accomplish whatever task was at hand. He was generous with his time, inquisitive, and always considerate of others. In fact, when he went into the hospital, he made sure that Robyn let us know that he would not be with us at our National Conference. That was Don.
Anyone who worked closely with Don valued his intellect and his insights. I always looked forward to talking with him so that I could learn what I should be reading and exploring. Don never told me what to think, but it was always clear that he expected me to think deeply and to put students first. And he never intimidated anyone with his knowledge and experience. Harvard-educated, Don was one of the most well-read people I have ever met, but he never made this feel intimidating. His many gifts included the ability to listen carefully and to consider diverse opinions. These talents allowed him to bring entire communities together to tackle the most challenging issues, whether they included college readiness, renovating campuses, or navigating budget difficulties. As a strategic thinker, Don was unparalleled.
As a supporter of AVID, Don embraced that work in the late 1980’s, as Mary Catherine Swanson began to expand the program. He made sure that AVID played a role in all of the districts he served, keeping equity at the forefront. In the past few years, we were pleased to work with Don and the Poway District on a variety of efforts. As always, we came away better for the experience, and students benefitted. Don was a founding member of AVID Center’s Superintendents’ Leadership Collaborative and was beginning to work with his long-time colleague, Monte Moses on some materials and training to help superintendents focus more effectively on college readiness. There was much ahead for him to do.
In his influential book, Good to Great, Jim Collins introduces us to the concept of Level Five Leadership, noting that Level Five leaders make their organizations great because they possess the rare combination of two traits: professional will and personal humility. Don had what Collins describes as the unwavering, relentless focus for doing the right thing. Don practiced humility as well, not wanting the attention on himself, but on results for his students. He epitomized Level Five leadership.
One of my favorite AVID phrases, which I learned early on from Mary Catherine Swanson, is that education must honor the dignity of the learner.
No one did that better than Don. He will be deeply missed.