Ambassador visits hometown of Leechburg before leaving for Italy
By Mary Ann Thomas
Published: Monday, Sept. 2, 2013, 12:26 a.m.
Relatives of new U.S. Ambassador to Italy John Phillips didn't have to press too hard for him to visit his hometown of Leechburg before he begins his diplomatic assignment in a few weeks.
“We knew he was really busy, but we wanted to get him here soon because it's unlikely we'll get to see him for a long time,” said Ernie Phillips, 72, of Lansing, Mich., who helped plan his brother's homecoming over the holiday weekend.
President Obama nominated John Phillips in July to replace Ambassador David Thorne, who served since August 2009. The Senate confirmed Phillips on Aug. 1.
Phillips, an early supporter of Obama, is the grandson of Italian immigrants, whose last name was changed from Filippi.
He has been called “the nation's premier whistleblower attorney” and founded the Center for Law in the Public Interest in 1971 in Los Angeles. Phillips helped to modernize the dormant Civil War-era Federal False Claims Act to make it useful in combating fraud against the government.
On Sunday, family and friends just wanted to talk to him.
“This is a safe place, a welcoming place,” John Phillips told a crowd of more than 70 family members and friends at an informal reception in the Marconi Lodge, Leechburg's fabled Italian club.
Although he's been a longtime successful attorney, Phillips, 70, of Washington, D.C., seems to have always made time to come back to the place where he played high school football and drove around the woods in used cars from his late father's Ford dealership.
“Yeah, he's always come into town,” said attorney and former Mayor Chuck Pascal, who remembered when Phillips was the commencement speaker for Leechburg Area High School's Class of 2001.
Even the guys making ham sandwiches in the Marconi's kitchen know him.
Former Leechburg High School teachers Tony Defilippi, who heads borough council, and Bill Carroll, a former Leechburg school principal, remember Phillips from school.
“Very nice guy and a good athlete,” Defilippi said.
“He was very bright,” Carroll said.
Joan Cherotti, 73, of West Leechburg remembered when her mother and Phillips' late mother, Hilda, used to play bridge together.
“His parents would have been so proud of him,” she said.
“There's not that many people who come from here that rise to such prominence,” Pascal said. “And he's never forgotten where he came from.”
An old friend from Leechburg High School's Class of 1960 pulled Phillips together with a half-dozen of his classmates for a group photo.
Phillips said he was just happy to see everyone, especially his ailing aunt, Edna Logero, 88, of Leechburg. Then there's the 70th birthday of his cousin Louis Phillips of Upper St. Clair on Monday. And the contingent of about 20 relatives from the Colussy side of the family from Bridgeville, known for the Colussy Chevrolet car dealership.
“It's always good to touch base with my roots and see old friends,” Phillips said.
Ernie Phillips said of his youngest brother: “We love our brother. We're very proud of him. Our mission was to keep him grounded. I think it worked.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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