Christopher H. Phillips, 87, state senator, ambassador

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / February 11, 2008

Even as a child, Christopher Hallowell Phillips showed early signs that he would become a successful diplomat. When he was 7, he stood in for his ambassador father to welcome Charles Lindbergh to Brussels after the aviator completed his historic transatlantic flight in 1927.

"I remember being stationed at the door of the elevator, and I recall vividly the door opening and this very tall, lean man in brown leather flying togs stepping out and accepting my handshake and my welcome to the American Embassy," he said in a Foreign Affairs Oral History Project of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training in 1993.

Mr. Phillips would embark on a wide-ranging career of public service and diplomacy, starting as a Massachusetts state senator and continuing with posts in the State Department, the United Nations, and the National Council for US-China Trade.

Mr. Phillips, whose last diplomatic post was as US ambassador to Brunei from 1989 to 1991, died Jan. 10 at the Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester. He was 87 and lived in Ipswich.

His wife, Sydney (Watkins) Osborne Phillips, said death was due to complications from a stomach ulcer.

"He was a very kind, sweet gentle man. He looked like a diplomat," she said, adding that one Boston newspaper once described him as "the handsome blue-eyed senator from Beverly."

Mr. Phillips pursued many endeavors. "Growing up, I used to ask him, 'So what do you do?' " said his daughter Miriam of San Francisco. Another daughter, Victoria P. Boyd of New York City, described him as "a modest and unassuming man who cared deeply about his family, loved the beauty of nature, animals, and fine wine."

In younger days, Mr. Phillips rode horses, hiked, and fished, and until December he was walking at least a mile a day, his wife said.

His family traces its roots to 1620 and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was a direct descendant of John Phillips, the first mayor of Boston, and related to Wendell Phillips, the abolitionist orator, and to the founders of Phillips Academy Andover and Exeter, according to his son David, of Mountain View, Calif.

Mr. Phillips's father, William, was US ambassador to Italy at the outbreak of World War II and served as undersecretary of state under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Yet, friends said, Mr. Phillips never flaunted his Brahmin background.

"Chris was not a person who talked about his distinguished forbears," said William Brewer, a retired lawyer of Galesville, Md., formerly of Manchester-by-the-Sea and a longtime friend. "He was one of that dying breed of New England Republicans, conservative on financial affairs and more liberal on social issues."

Mr. Phillips was born in The Hague, one of six children of William and Caroline (Drayton) Phillips. His father was in the diplomatic service there.

As the child of a diplomat, Mr. Phillips attended a variety of private schools, including Avon Old Farms, a boys school in Avon, Conn. He said his interest in political life was sparked by his parents' close friendship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and recalled his first visit to the White House when he was 13.

He entered Harvard in 1939. He took a year off at the end of his freshman year and enrolled at Montana State College in Bozeman and worked on a ranch as a cowboy. It was in Montana that he met Mabel Olsen. They married in 1943.

Mr. Phillips never lost his love for Montana, a granddaughter, Anna Eley of Bozeman, said in a eulogy. Her grandfather "once confided there was a time when he contemplated passing up his career for the plains and mountains of the Big Sky Country."

He then enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving four years. During the occupation of Japan, he spent 1945 and 1946 in Tokyo establishing policies for food distribution.

Mr. Phillips returned to Harvard in 1946 and graduated with the class of 1948. He wanted to go into politics, he said, but at 27, happily married and with a 2-year-old daughter, he needed a job. He got one with the Beverly Evening Times covering City Hall.

It was Beverly's mayor who convinced him to run for the state Senate, he wrote, and in 1948 he defeated his Democratic opponent. He was reelected twice but left in the middle of his third term to serve on the Massachusetts Eisenhower for President Committee.

Soon after, he went to Washington to serve as a special assistant for United Nations Affairs and in other State Department posts from 1953 to 1957. Later positions included: representative to the UN Economic and Social Council; special liaison for Chase Manhattan Bank; and an official for the International Chamber of Commerce.

In 1969, he became deputy US representative on the UN Security Council. He left in 1973 to head the National Council for US-China Trade, a joint venture between the government and the private sector. With the Council, he made 20 trips to China from 1973 to 1986.

In 1989, the Reagan administration appointed him ambassador to Brunei. He recalled presenting his credentials amid the pomp of the royal palace, where he said the sultan had a painting of Old Ironsides, the ship berthed in Charlestown.

Mabel Phillips died in 1995. Mr. Phillips married Sydney Osborne 10 years ago.

In addition to his wife, son, and two daughters, Mr. Phillips leaves a sister, Anne Bryant of Bedford; two stepchildren, Richard W. Osborne of Schuylerville, N.Y., and Nancy Osborne Almquist of Belmont; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Services have been held.

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