Beloved NC museum guard, WWII vet Paul Phillips dies at 93

In the years after World War II, Paul Phillips served as a diver and demolition specialist.


By HUNTER INGRAM | Star-News, Wilmington, N.C. | Published: January 22, 2021

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — "He met everyone at the door with a smile. That's just who he was."

That's how Evonne Phillips described her husband Paul's presence as the first face guests saw when they arrived at the Cameron Art Museum for nearly 20 years.

Retirement didn't stop Paul Phillips from signing onto the security of the museum's new building in 2002, after a long career in security and a sterling record of service in World War II. At the museum, he was a consistent greeting in an ever-changing world.

At the age of 93, Paul passed away Tuesday with his family by his side.

"He was the face of the museum for so many people," said museum property director Johnnie McCoy. "People expected him to be there and he always was."

Before he manned his post at the museum's front desk, Paul was a veteran with deep ties to a Wilmington region he eventually called home.

Born in 1927, Paul signed up for the Navy when he was just a teenager in 1945 with only a few months left in World War II. He was assigned to serve on deck of the USS North Carolina as a gunner's mate, greasing the large guns that defended the ship now moored across from downtown Wilmington.

For the next two decades, he would stick with the Navy, finding his way to conflicts in Korea and the early days of the Vietnam War.

For much of his 21-year military career, Paul was a trained diver with a specialty in demolition and explosive ordnance disposal. He proudly showed off a photo of him in his diving gear to people at the museum.

After the war, Paul took up another tour of duty, first with a police department and then as a civil servant in Southport at Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal from 1968 to 1988.

His grandson, Michael Phillips, wrote a farewell for his grandfather after his passing, speaking to the man he was for those who knew him.

"Many might ask what his biggest accomplishment was," Michael wrote in the letter shared with the StarNews. "His biggest accomplishment was being himself. Paul Wesley Phillips was a man beyond men."

His guard at Sunny Point put him on the path to his late-in-life devotion to the museum, which hired him from a private security firm to work directly with the countless local residents and visitors who would come to know him.

"Paul remembered everyone," said CAM deputy director Heather Wilson. "Visitors, volunteers and especially the staff. He always asked about our families. He was a keen observer of just about everything."

Wilson fondly remembers one time Paul came office to office to let staff know when their car inspections expired so they didn't forget to take them in for service.

"It was so sweet, and it was because he was worried about all of us," Wilson said. "He took care of us."

At the museum, he was most often seen at the front desk, but he was sometimes seen roaming the galleries chatting with guests. McCoy said there wasn't much Paul missed when he was on guard.

"He was the sharpest person I've ever worked with mentally," he said. "He was on top of things no one would even think about, and he was always proper. It was a privilege just to know him, much less to be his coworker."

His impact extended far beyond the museum. In Leland, his kindness and history of service made him a favorite of the community. For his 93rd birthday last year, Mayor Brenda Bozeman, the museum, his fellow veterans at the Leland VFW Post 12196 and others helped organize a socially distant parade celebration for Paul outside of his long-term care facility.

Seated under a tent next to Evonne to shield from the August sun, he watched as cars strung with balloons and celebratory signs drove past shouting their appreciation for him. The entire time, his big signature smile stretched across his face.

In his letter to his grandfather, Michael cited the lessons his family have taken from Paul's life of giving back.

"The biggest lesson we as a family and you all as readers can take from his life is to love unconditionally... and serve others in any given circumstance," Michael wrote in a letter shared with the StarNews. "With him being an idol and mentor to so many, striving to feel his shoes feels impossible. If we as people could be half the man he was, we would be amazing people."

Paul officially embraced retirement when he relinquished his post at the museum at the age of 91 in 2018. But before he left, the museum ensured he would forever hold a place in its permanent collection.

In 2017, Paul sat for an oil portrait painting by artist Tatyana Kulida. The portrait is now hanging in the museum as part of the "She Persists" exhibition, which is up through Feb. 14.

At the home where he closed out a life of service and showed kindness to all, Paul's story now stands as a part of history.

"Everyone loved Paul across the board," Wilson said. "He made everyone feel special. He was just one of those truly good people."


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