Robert Derrick Phillips’48

Dr. Robert Derrick Phillips, age 93 of Asheville, died peacefully on October 20, surrounded by family and his devoted caregivers at the NC State Veterans Home. 

He will be remembered as a gifted healer, with a deep understanding of the human condition. He combined compassion and intellect in his work as a therapist, and he celebrated his rich relationships with friends and family throughout his life.

Born December 2, 1925 in Laurinburg, N.C., he was the son of James Dickson Phillips and Helen Shepherd Phillips. He attended the public schools of Laurinburg and entered Davidson College in 1942. 

After one year at Davidson, he served in the US Navy for three years, and was commissioned an Ensign in the Atlantic Theater on anti-submarine duty. Returning to Davidson after the war, he graduated in 1948 and entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. 

In 1951, he married Frances Dana Fulcher of Davidson, with whom he had seven children: a son, Bo, and six daughters, Stuart, Helen, Jane, Anna, Betsy and Fran. 

After graduating from medical school in 1952, he interned for one year at Philadelphia General Hospital. In 1953, he entered surgical residency at the Medical College of South Carolina in Charleston, completing that program in 1957. 

Under the Presbyterian Board of Missions, he and his family were posted as medical missionaries in Chonju, Korea. They returned to the U.S. on medical furlough, following his illness in 1959. 

After convalescence, he was unable to continue surgical practice and entered a second residency, training in psychiatry at UNC- Chapel Hill. He subsequently practiced psychiatry in Durham and Chapel Hill for the next 32 years and taught at Duke University and the UNC School of Medicine until 1995. He was a fellow at the American College of Surgeons and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

Dr. Phillips held an unwavering commitment to social justice, especially in regard to racial reconciliation. From 1964-67, he served on the executive committee of the Committee of Responsibility to the War-Injured and War-Burned Vietnamese Children.

In 1987, he was a recipient of the Martin Luther King award presented by the Black Caucus of Orange County, N.C. in recognition of his leadership of the Human Rights Commission of Chapel Hill during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. 

In 1991, he founded the national support group, All Races Coalition with Native American People and was active in Native American advocacy for much of his life.  He forged a close, years-long friendship with Roberta Blackgoat, leader of the Navajo Women of Resistance in Arizona, and he served as visiting professor at Little Bighorn College on the Crow Reservation in Montana.

A frequent visitor to the Mohawk Tribal Community in Fonda, NY,  he provided residential maintenance and support to his friends there. 

In 1975 he published a clinical monograph “Structural Symbiotic Systems” and in 1995, the book “The Recovery of the True Self.”

Dr. Phillips was an active member of both the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church. He was an avid tennis player, runner and cribbage player, who loved the NC and Western mountains, the Arizona desert and Sunset Beach. Reading was a passion throughout his life, and he was an expansive and witty storyteller and letter-writer.

He is survived by his seven children, 16 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, his wife, Susan Sihler, and his dear friend and caregiver, Cecilia Letman.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, November 15, at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill. 

An additional service will be at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, November 16, at Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville. 

Memorials may be made to the Native American Rights Fund  or the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).