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by Gary Gordon
The Fox, 1998
There was a story in the national newsmagazines sometime in 1971 about a brawny man in his late 30s who walked into the U.S. Steel headquarters in Chicago and dumped a jar of foul-smelling, filthy, polluted water and slime on the beautiful, new shag carpeting.
The water and slime came from a U.S. Steel drain, headed for a river.
As secretaries reportedly reacted with shock and surprise, the man flicked a small card onto the ruined rug and quickly left.
The card read: The Fox.
He was already notorious at the time, having done this at various corporate headquarters in Illinois and Indiana; having struck industry drainpipes on midnight raids, clogging them so those industries couldn’t pollute the Illinois River or his most beloved Fox River.
Mike Royko, renown columnist for The Chicago Daily News had written pieces on him, had talked with him, but had never met him.
Very few people knew who he was.
I met him in June, 1973.
It was known then as Ecotage. Sabotage against industries that polluted the water and air. A very active form of civil disobedience that some in this current heated environment might be tempted to denounce as terrorism.
But as practiced by The Fox, it never physically hurt anyone. And it was not designed to subjugate people or reduce their right to think. The mission was to protect the sources of life: water and air. So it was designed to harass industries, to embarrass them, to call attention to their actions, to bring public pressure to bear on the lawmakers who allowed them to spoil the water and air, who looked the other way, who condemned the environmentalists. (Remember, The Fox began his activities in the late 60s; the first Earth Day was April 1970: protecting the environment was not yet on the political radar; few politicians on the local, state or national level had even learned to pay lip service to the issue.)
The Fox was not a bomber; sometimes his weapon was the written word: he would slip signs into store windows: “I Can’t Stop Killing Your Environment, I Need The Profits. U.S. Steel.” The only destruction he hoped to accomplish was the destruction of the reputations of industries that polluted, the destruction of the political careers of those who protected those industries, and the destruction of those dangerous, deadly acts.
Years later there were times when local law enforcement helped him out. Unofficially, of course. That’s because years later the down-home boys with the badges had a better understanding of who was destroying what. And The Fox was a Robin Hood, on their side, a genuine folk hero,
In May of 1973 I was completing an internship with the Green Bay Press-Gazette. I had worked in peaceful demonstrations against the war, worked for McGovern for President in ’72, worked a little with folks who worked with The American Indian Movement (A.I.M.), worked as a journalist covering marches and various civil disobedience and riots; and I remember when I read about The Fox I thought what he did was very, very cool.
Near the end of May I was assigned to cover the Jolliet-Marquette Re-enactment Expedition. Seven men from Chicago, wearing 1673 period costume, paddling two period-style custom-crafted birchbark canoes, were to arrive in Green Bay, having set out a few days earlier from St. Ignace, Michigan to re-enact Louis Jolliet’s 4-month, three thousand mile journey of exploration.
Storm-tossed waves of eight feet delayed their arrival a few hours but did not lessen the impact they had on the crowd when they rowed in, pulled their canoes ashore, sang French Voyageur songs, accepted the key to the city, and talked about the history of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Delta.
After covering them for two days, I was offered a summer job: join the expedition as part of the land support and press team. It was a no-brainer. Three and a half months on the Mississippi, helping these guys as they paddled from town to city to town, arranging campsites, greetings by dignitaries, and press coverage.
It was grass-roots theater; overt and guerrilla; a show for the folks in the heartland with a profound and provocative message at its core. Their arrival would be greeted by the Mayor, local dignitaries and crowds, they would perform French Voyageur songs, interspersed with short sketches and speeches that would teach a little history; most important, they would talk about how clean the river was when they journeyed this way 300 years ago.
Dubuque, The Quad Cities, Quincy, Hannibal, Alton, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Thebes, Cairo, New Madrid, West Memphis, Helena, Rosedale, and numerous other riverside towns, following Marquette’s diary and timetable, to where the Arkansas enters the Mississippi, then back up to the Illinois, thru Chicago, and back up the Great Lake to Green Bay.
After two weeks or so Reid Lewis, the leader who portrayed Jolliet, took me aside.
“You might hear some stuff about Jim,” he said. “It’s true, but you’ve got to keep it secret.”
Jim Phillips was The Fox.
L-R: Jim, Jeff Le Clerc, Reid Lewis, Ken Lewis, paddling in the Chicago River
The folk hero who had psychologically terrorized industrial polluters throughout Chicago and much of Illinois was the rudder-man in one of the two canoes of the Jolliet-Marquette Re-enactment Expedition.
“When I canoed these waters 300 years ago, I would dip my paddle in the water, raise it into the air with an end to my lips, and let the water run into my mouth. I cannot do that now, can I? It is too filthy.” Ken Lewis, Reid’s brother, who portrayed one of the voyageurs, would say to the crowds.
And Jim would step forward and politely mention the industries they had paddled by on their way down the river, and the pollution that prevented them from drinking as the Voyageurs had done.
When we sat at dinner with the Mayor and the local powers that be, Jim would talk in more detail about the damage done to the river by the industries and one of his favorite targets, the Army Corps of Engineers. And he would talk about what could be done to make it better.
He spoke calmly, but with authority, a down-home guy, a fisherman, a biology teacher from and of Heartland, America. No one ever suspected this slightly grizzled bear of a guy who wore a French Voyageur topknot was one of the nation’s number one practitioners of ecotage.
Late at night, every now and then, by the campfire, when the locals and dignitaries had gone, Jim would tell stories about moonlit nights when he canoed up to a drain dumping pollution and filled it with cement.
And I thought, man, I’d like to be on one of those rides.
L-R: The Expedition, in early August, in the heat of the lower Mississippi at Rosedale
From a press release I wrote shortly after the Voyageurs turned north:
Why would anyone paddle 3,000 miles in a canoe?
The most common answers have centered on the mental stability of the men currently attempting such a feat.
“They gotta be nuts,” people said when the men paddled up the Fox River, down the Wisconsin River and onto the Mississippi.
And when the men, who are retracing the journey of Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, turned around at the mouth of the Arkansas River and began paddling back up the Mississippi River, the people knew the men were “insane.”
“Either that, or they’re gluttons for punishment,” one farmer declared. “I mean,” he continued, “why else would anyone paddle that far in those two canoes?”
…Each man has his own reason for taking part in the re-enactment of the 300-year-old event…
…Jim Phillips, an environmental science teacher, said he feels his reason for being on the voyage-ecology-is also an old but good theme.
Chosen specifically because he is an environmentalist, he said, “this expedition allows me to meet and talk with those concerned about the ecology; hopefully inspire others to become interested and active, and it gives me a better understanding of what kind of nonsense the Army Corps of Engineers is up to.”
Phillips, who cut his foot while portaging the canoes near Appleton, Wisconsin, and whose foot became infected by some raw sewage in the Mississippi near Bellevue, Iowa, said he did not enter the voyage with any preconceptions about the state of pollution on the waterways.
“If I had imagined massive pollution-raw sewage being dumped everywhere, I would now be pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, if I had pictured clean, sparkling, drinkable water, I would now be bitterly disappointed.”
Phillips quit teaching full-time 3 years ago when he became “fed up with a school system that spent millions of dollars trying to bring the outdoors inside instead of taking the kids outside.”
Now, with two-thirds of the voyage completed, he said he is “disgusted; mostly with the Corps of Engineers, a bureaucracy built on promoting and promulgating itself and its obsolete policies of flood control.”
…”My specific objective on this voyage is to make people aware of the problems. Sure they’re aware in some ways. But they don’t do anything. My hope is that this approach, dressed as a Voyageur, paddling the entire distance, will grab the attention of the people.”
The oldest of the crew, Phillips said the voyage itself is not a personal challenge.
“The challenge will come afterward through fulfilling commitments made by myself and persons all along our route, as to whether or not they’re willing to get together and work on the problems.”
L-R: Jim and Ken inspect the canoe and get some fresh water.
In Rosedale, Jim debated an Army Corps of Engineers General; the general in uniform, Jim in his Voyaguer costume. The general left in a huff.
At a stop in Starved Rock, Illinois, on the way back north, Jim’s audience was a banquet-room full of high-ranking state officials. It was one of the high points of the trip and an effective use of guerrilla theater. Unsuspecting, they listened attentively, eagerly, to the notorious Fox; he provoked them with his passion, his sense of history, and his challenge: clean up the water. His speech rang in everyone’s ears:
Three hundred years ago I came down these rivers with the rest of these men. As I paddled down these rivers, I saw the richest and most beautiful land that God had ever created. But something has happened since the time we saw the river, and since the time you see the river now. And as a Voyageur who has seen the same trees that now look down on you, I might come back and ask yo some questions.
I would like to know where the beautiful prairie has gone, that I saw when I came through here 300 hears ago. I can remember the prairie grass as tall as a man on horse, that it hid our canoes. The flowers that came in profusion, that I cannot even describe their beauty. There is not one foot of it left. What have you done with it? The five feet of topsoil, that was so rich that you could turn it under and grow crops to save the starvation of the world; how did you lose it? I saw it down the river as we went down.
When I came down 300 years ago, I saw the great cultures as they lived along the riverbanks, and as they met us they showed us their history, their potteries. They showed us their sacred burial grounds. Where have they gone? Why have you not passed the laws to protect these sacred grounds? Must we lose all of this?
I have fished in the rivers, and I have taken the Pickerel and the Pike; I’ve seen the Walleye and the Bass. And now I cannot even drink the water. What have you done to it?
I breathed the air that was as clear and as pure as the morning breeze, and now my eyes water as I travel past your civilized cities. Why do you do this to yourselves? Why do you allow it to happen?
I see some good things. I see the little children; they are so strong and happy. But what are you going to give them if you continue to do these things to your air and your water?
Why don’t you save your history?
Why don’t you allow your children, that you give life to, to grow up with the types of beauty that I once saw? There is precious little of it left.
I will paddle 3,000 miles to ask these questions, and when my paddling is done, I will come back to you and ask these questions again.
L-R: Jim, me, and Reid, in my hotel room in Chicago, Labor Day '73.
The photo was taken by my Dad, who was in town to do a TV show interview,
which he planned to conveniently coincide with the Expedition's schedule.
The expedition, following Marquette’s diary, ended back in Green Bay in September.
I heard from Jim sometime in 1979. He enlisted me to be part of Operation Kindred Spirits. He mailed hundreds of small bright orange stickers to me that read: “Armour Dial Pollutes Your Water.” My mission was to recruit others, so I recruited folks from the anti-nuke group I was working with, The Catfish Alliance: we surreptitiously stuck them on Armour Dial products on the shelves in the stores. It was a nationwide campaign he’d started years before, and it eventually produced results.
I didn’t see Jim again til three years ago, for the Expedition’s 25th anniversary reunion. Jim and I drove from Chicago to Reid’s farm in Wisconsin, and we caught up with each other along the way.
He’d heard I’d been Mayor of Gainesville, Florida. I’d heard he’d spent some time going legit, working for a while as an inspector with the Kane County Department of Environmental Regulation.
He told me someone showed him a paper written “by some asshole at the Cato Institute” calling him the grandfather of eco-terrorism. "What bullshit. Jeez, the polluters are the-- well, you know."
As I had abandoned any thoughts of guerrilla theater and civil disobedience to pursue a more conventional activist and political path, we compared notes on the degrees of effectiveness of working outside and within “the system”.
He talked about the frustrations of getting laws passed only to see them go un-enforced. I told him quite a bit of what I’d gotten done in municipal government could be undone by one vote of an opposition achieving majority, and I said something about the price of liberty being eternal vigilance.
Ultimately we agreed that all of it, from voting to civil disobedience, was the system.
I told him I didn’t realize how much I learned that summer, from the Voyageurs, the townspeople, and especially from him until I found myself in the late 70s working against nuclear power and for safe energy, and later, in municipal office, working on utility reform and the establishment of city-wide recycling.
I never did ride with him on a midnight raid.
And he never did go public, until two years ago, when he wrote a book. He never wanted to be in the spotlight; it was his deeds he wanted to speak loud and clear.
“I’m just a biology teacher in Aurora, Illinois,” he would say.
Ken Lewis called last Wednesday. Jim passed away.
To me he was an American hero, and he was a good guy.
The Fox is dead. Long live The Fox.
L-R, back: Chuck "Marquette" McEnery, Ken Lewis, Ralph Frese (canoe-builder & logistics), Reid "Jolliet" Lewis, Lee Broske,
Front: Jim Phillips, Bill Dwyer; at the reunion at Reid's farm, August '98.
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