Robert Phillips ’90
Imagine sitting at a dinner table with 20 friends who are so close they’re family. You’ve grown closer to each of them with each passing decade, and all of them are equally happy to see you. If you can remember—rather than imagine—this scene, then you are a very lucky person, or you are Berea College alumnus, Robert Phillips ’90.
Like anything worthwhile, Phillips’ circle of friends and fellow alumni didn’t appear overnight, and it doesn’t thrive without his frequent contributions. While Berea College may have brought them together as students, Phillips makes a concerted effort to text, visit and open his home to the ones he loves. Investing in friendships wasn’t easy while Phillips climbed the corporate ladder at State Farm for more than 30 years, supported his extended family and began volunteering on Berea’s Alumni Executive Council. But now, as his retirement approaches, Phillips says, “putting in the time and dime really paid off. I’m fixing to grow older with my best friends in the world.”
A college fair at Phillips’ high school in Pike County, Ky., introduced him to Berea College, but his basketball coach and racially diverse Mountaineer teammates made Berea feel like home. The College’s Black student population was much larger than back home in eastern Kentucky, where Phillips’ loving white grandparents raised him among only a handful of other Black residents in their county. So, at Berea, Phillips enjoyed seeing more people that looked like him and not having to deal with some of the anti-Black racism he dealt with back home, at least not on campus, Phillips said.
“You’d get some locals making threats, sometimes acting on them, but I always knew I had backup,” he said. “I didn’t have that when I was 15, riding my bike, when a white guy pulled up beside me pointing his gun out the window. But I had backup at Berea, and I still do.”
These experiences of solidarity deepened Phillips’ connection to Berea’s founding mission of accessible interracial co-education. This drew him closer to his friends, and he became known among his friends as the guy to talk to about money.
“Everybody has something to give, and all I had to give back then was financial advice,” Phillips said. “Through his general store, my grandfather helped folks stay afloat back home by selling staples on credit. Since I was 8 years old, he had me running the cash register and keeping the credit accounts current, so I saw exactly how much debt he just forgave.
“With those skills I tried to help my buddies in Berea not blow their whole labor paycheck in one week,” Phillips continued, laughing. “They did it anyway, but I’d give them a loan, and I kept good tabs.”
Now, Phillips continues this helpful tradition by giving to Berea College; encouraging his friends to give; and providing free budget, debt repayment and retirement advice to single parents and other individuals he has encountered throughout his career.
“If you’ve got something to give, why not give it?” he asked. “My grandparents taught me to work hard and provide for my own, and that’s what it feels like, giving back to Berea. It’s what I tell my nephews and anybody who will listen: just be generous to others because somebody was generous to you.”