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Longtime member of law enforcement mourned by family, friends

Lifelong law enforcement professional Fred Phillips died Oct. 11 at his home in Jonesborough. He was 72.
Phillips served Johnson City, Washington County and the State of Tennessee for more than 40 years.
His death is being mourned by his family and friends, not the least of which is Marion Light, who says Phillips is the reason he is still alive today.
Light, who was friends with Phillips for nearly 30 years, says he will never forget Phillips’ determination on the snowy night of Dec.16, 1996 – determination that saved Light’s life.
That night, on a dark, snowy road, Light was on his way home from work when he was involved in a two-car wreck that left him in critical condition.
“They couldn’t get an ambulance to me and they thought I was dead,” Light said. “They had already covered the car with a sheet.”
Phillips, who was serving as sheriff of Washington County at the time, arrived on the scene and quickly set four flares so a helicopter could spot the crash scene.
“I was told later that the pilot didn’t want to fly in those weather conditions, but Fred told him, ‘I’m not asking you to come – I’m telling you,’” Light said.
Light was airlifted to the Johnson City Medical Center and when the helicopter landed, Phillips was already there waiting. He followed Light into the trauma unit and stayed until Light’s wife arrived.
“If it had not been for him coming out (to the scene) himself, I know I wouldn’t have lived,” Light said. “The trauma surgeon told me later that another two minutes and I would have been gone. Fred gave me those two minutes.
“The good Lord works miracles, but He doesn’t do abracadabra. He uses people. He used Fred that night to keep me here.”
Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal also remembered Phillips.
“The law enforcement community lost a good friend today,” he said shortly after learning of Phillips’ death. “Fred dedicated his life to his family and to public service. There was no finer man and friend. Our prayers go out to his family during this difficult time.”
Pamela Harris, state executive committeewoman, Democratic Party District 3, also remembered Phillips fondly.
“(There were) so many careers Fred Phillips jump started in law enforcement and politics,” she said. “No one was surprised when they got a call from Phillips to see how his recommendation was working out, or he might call and ask if you knew of anyone who could help another individual.
“One thing that struck me was Fred’s ability to see the potential in others, even when they didn’t see it themselves. He had a way of mentoring that made a person grow toward their potential and many lives have been touched by him.”
Phillips started his law enforcement career in 1964 and worked his way up through the ranks until being named Johnson City police chief in 1981. In 1990, he was appointed Director of the Department of Public Safety for the city.
During that time, officers were dual-trained as firefighters and Phillips oversaw the operation of both departments.
Following his retirement from the city, he served at the Law Enforcement Training Academy in Nashville.
Phillips was elected sheriff of Washington County in 1994 and again in 2002. It was during his first term in office that the new Washington County Detention Center was built.
Early in his second term as sheriff, in December 2002, Phillips was appointed by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen as the Tennessee Commissioner of Safety. He left that post in December 2005.
He ran for a seat in the 7th District House of Representatives but was unsuccessful.
Phillips served on the National Sheriff’s Association’s board of directors and as president of the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association in 1998 and 1999. He was a member of the Tennessee Chief’s Association, was elected Sheriff of the Year in 1999 and served on the Washington County 911 board.
Phillips is survived by his wife, Verla Davis Phillips, of Jonesborough; son and daughter-in-law, Doug and Jenny Phillips, of Elizabethton; daughter, Anita Fink, of Johnson City; sister, Brenda Bryant, of Jonesborough; grandchildren, Angela Fink, Austin Fink, Kane Phillips and Luke Phillips; and two great-grandchildren, Nathan Fink and Grayson Fink.
Funeral services took place on Oct. 14 with interment services conducted Oct. 15 at Mountain Home National Cemetery.