The life and times of John McCandlish Phillips

By Terry Mattingly Modified: May 1, 2013 at 10:15 am •  Published: May 1, 2013

The word on the Brooklyn streets in 1959 was that a crazy preacher from Pennsylvania was helping addicts find the power to kick heroin and gang members to trade their weapons for Bibles.

Reporter John McCandlish Phillips heard the talk in local churches and took the tip to his metro editors at The New York Times. This was more than a religion story, he argued. This was something truly new in urban ministry in a rough corner of the city.

The editors just didn't get it.

"The New York Times could not see ... validity of this approach to any issue as serious as addiction. Editors said, 'You can't put a few religious ideas up against something as real as addiction and expect any results,'" said Phillips, in a 2000 interview in Riverside Park.

The young preacher was David Wilkerson, whose story would eventually be told in the bestseller "The Cross and the Switchblade." Phillips kept bringing his editors detailed reports about Teen Challenge's work, which would eventually expand worldwide.

Again, Phillips stressed this was not a story full of mumbo-jumbo. As a veteran reporter, he knew he needed a foundation of hard facts about subjects -- drug addiction and gang warfare -- that were clearly newsworthy. After a decade, his editors surrendered and let him write the story.

"The results were there," he said. "Lives were being changed. ... It was news. We miss too many stories like that and that's a shame."

Phillips died on April 9 at the age of 85. His brilliant two-decade Times career ended when he left the newsroom in 1973, at the peak of his journalistic powers, to become a Pentecostal preacher on Manhattan's upper West Side. His flock was small, but included some Christians in major newsrooms who considered him a discreet and invaluable mentor.

No one questioned the man's journalism skills. In a 1997 profile in The New Yorker -- "The Man Who Disappeared" -- writer Gay Talese was quoted calling him the "Ted Williams of the young reporters," even on a legendary staff that included David Halberstam, Richard Reeves and J. Anthony Lukas.

"There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips," said Talese. "Phillips is not interested in winning a Pulitzer Prize. He is not interested in demeaning people. ... He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different drummer. Phillips is not even in the same jungle."

On the management side, the Times obituary noted that former managing editor Arthur Gelb once called Phillips "the most original stylist I'd ever edited."

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