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Florida educator Lorenzo Phillips dies; Army veteran served three tours in Vietnam

Lorenzo Phillips

By LESLIE POSTAL | Orlando Sentinel | Published: April 22, 2020

ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — As a school administrator, Lorenzo Phillips was by turns strict and compassionate, funny and wise, an educator willing to stick up for his students and with a gift, one former student said, "for getting us kids to think about what we were doing.”

Phillips was a man who led with love, another student remembered, but not always quietly.

A captain in the U.S. Army before he turned his talents to education, Phillips once bellowed at that student down a hallway at Winter Park High School,"I don’t care if you have a meeting with the Pope, you need to wait for me in my office!”

Traci Brown, whose Facebook post about her father’s death generated more than 400 comments, wrote underneath that one, “That’s my Dad,” adding a smiley face emoji.

“He was stern, and he cared,” said Brown of Apopka, and the teenagers he spent most of his career with responded well to the combination.

Phillips, 77, died March 27 of complications related to multiple myeloma, a cancer of the white blood cells, brought on by exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, Brown said. He served more than 10 years in the Army, including three tours in Vietnam.

In Central Florida, Phillips’ education career spanned nearly 40 years. He worked for the Orange County school district for 30 years, retiring in 2006 as principal of Jones High School.

At Jones, the former platoon commander was known for standing in the middle of campus and shouting, “You’re late!" at any student who walked by after the second bell rang but also for pushing academics and offering students opportunities to improve. "Kids know that I want them to learn,” he said in 2003.

After his Jones stint, he taught for nine years at an alternative school in Seminole County.

“My father was in love with academia,” Brown said, with added proof in his pick-up truck tool box — filled with books, not tools.

And, she said, “It was just so important for him to serve, to share the gifts God gave him.”

His family plans a memorial service at Trinity Lutheran Church in September, with the hope social distancing guidelines now in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, will be lifted by then.

Phillips was devoted to the Orlando church, where he was a longtime member and Sunday school teacher, and Sunday mornings he often arrived before the pastor to help ready it for services.

Phillips was buried April 14 at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell with a small group of family members at the grave site. They included his wife, Joyce, his daughter and his son Byron Phillips, of Sanford. His son Craig Phillips, who lives in New York City, was unable to travel but took part via video call.

Phillips grew up in Haines City and went to Florida A&M University, where he met Joyce. They were married 55 years and raised their family in Maitland. Brown said her father was protective of his wife, a cheerleader for his children and devoted to granddaughters Taylor Brown, 15, and Jordan Phillips, 8.

At FAMU, Phillips took part in the Army ROTC program and after graduation started his military career, serving in Army infantry and intelligence units. He loved the military, Brown said, and was never resentful of the diagnosis he received last year.

He started his education career in Orange teaching social studies at what was then Liberty Junior High School. He earned graduate degrees from Rollins College and later served as an assistant principal at Winter Park High School, principal of Westridge Middle School and then principal at Jones.

“He is loved and admired by this community,” said Kat Gordon, the longest-serving Orange County School Board member, at a recent board meeting.

As administrator, Phillips could be tough but he cared deeply about this students, Brown said. He would buy winter clothes for those in financially strapped families and walk students home if bullies were bothering them.

On Facebook, others remembered his generosity and support.

“I got pregnant in high school and Mr Phillips was always there for me, to talk to, to make sure I was ok, and most of all to make sure I would still do great things in my future. I still tell my daughter about our conversations.”

“He was so firm, funny, smart, kind...he had such a way about him of getting us kids to think about what we were doing....such a gift he had.”

Phillips took over Jones in 2003, after it had been given a second consecutive F grade from the state. He wore a “No Excuses” lapel pin and was credited with making improvements, bolstering academic offerings and cutting absentee rates, but the school still had an F rating when he left.

“There’s a lot of regret in my heart,” he said when he announced his departure.

Phillips spent about a year in retirement, Brown said, but it didn’t last, and she wasn’t surprised he again returned to the classroom, working with students who’d gotten into trouble.

He wanted all children to succeed, she said, "and he knew education was the key to that.”

lpostal@orlandosentinel.com

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