The namesake: Utah Phillips |

The namesake: Utah Phillips

Utah Phillips
John Hart/ | The Union

Much of Hospitality House’s initial success can be credited to one of its co-founders, folk legend Bruce “Utah” Phillips.

“Utah gave us a voice out in the community,” said Cindy Maple, Hospitality House’s executive director. “And he gave us some credibility.”

Phillips, an ardent fighter for labor and peace issues, folk singer, poet and advocate for the homeless, died May 23, 2008, of heart failure.

Phillips was born on May 15, 1935, in Cleveland, a root that would stay with him in his ardent fanfare for the town’s baseball team, the Indians. By his teenage years, Phillips was riding the rails.

In 1956, Phillips joined the Army and was sent to postwar Korea, where he witnessed events that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

After three years in the Army, he returned to the state that earned him his nickname where he met Ammon Hennacy, a radical pacifist, who had started the Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City, inspired by the Catholic Worker movement.

Following a 1968 U.S. Senate campaign on the Peace and Freedom ticket, Phillips began his trade as a traveling musician. In his music, actions and words, he described the plight of the underdog, the struggles of labor unions and the power of direct action.

Phillips would eventually partner with famed musician Ani DiFranco, who created her own label, Righteous Babe Records. Their collaborative work was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Phillips’ work as an activist, musician, humanitarian and follower of the Catholic Worker movement’s leaders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin helped launch Hospitality House in 2005 along with Cindy Maple, Don Lee, Phillips’ wife Joanna Robinson and Margaret Little.

“He was a great spokesman and outreach person,” said Maple. “He had a way of talking that made people stop and listen.”

Phillips helped guide plans for a compassionate shelter for the homeless during meetings in late-2004 in Nevada City and Grass Valley.

“There were times in the early days when we would be tackling tough program issues that were a bit stressful,” Maple said. “I’d look over at Utah and he’d give me a little wink, as if telling me, ‘Don’t stress. You got this.’”

In her purse, Maple still carries a laminated get-out-of-jail-free Monopoly card Phillips gave her.

As a former guest and worker in shelters, Phillips brought experience with the Catholic Worker shelter model developed by Hennacy in Salt Lake City during the 1960s. He envisioned the same model for Grass Valley’s community shelter, in which a respect for voluntary poverty and a passion to help the poor would guide policy.

“Bruce always came at ideas, decisions, and thoughts about the homeless from the viewpoint of the homeless,” said Robinson, his widow.

Phillips always maintained a constancy of vision for the board that harkened back to the purity of the Catholic Worker ideal that he continued to love, Robinson said.

“There’s a phrase we all know: ‘the soul of compassion.’ Hospitality House is a place of compassion and with his pure vision, steadiness of purpose and sincere love for the poor,” Robinson said.

“Bruce will always be a part of its soul and will forever guide its policies.”

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email or call 530-477-4236.

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