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Doc Phillips: A Consistent, Steady, Dedicated Presence

One in a series of profiles of people who played a key role in the first 35 years of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.

Meaghan Gonsior photo

Walter “Doc” Phillips and his wife, Joan, were on the ferry to Islesboro back in the early 1990s when a fellow passenger told them about a nature camp for youngsters that had been started by the local land trust. It was an idea that stuck in Phillips’ head.

HHLT’s Nature Day Camp is still going strong after 20 years!

He did a little research at Camp Chewonki and then with the help of several teachers from Brunswick, Phillips started the Nature Day Camp program at Harspwell Heritage Land Trust, where he served on the Board of Trustees. That first summer program in 1998 had 10 campers over four days. Today, the program has expanded to four weeks with more than 75 youngsters involved. It is one of HHLT’s most popular and successful outreach programs and Phillips’ fondest legacy from his many years with the land trust.

“I thought it was important to introduce kids to the nature around them,” said Phillips, now 92. “I’m very glad it’s still going strong.”

Phillips’ interest in land preservation predates his family’s move to Maine in the early 1980s. Doc and Joan Phillips married in 1953 after meeting years earlier while working to rebuild a Huguenot school in post-World War II France. They moved to the Boston area, where Phillips worked as a property manager. There he got involved with local conservation efforts.

In 1961, they purchased Shelter Island in Harpswell Sound and brought their kids to spend summers camping and exploring the surrounding waters and tide pools. They later worked with HHLT to place a conservation easement on the island to keep it forever in its natural state.

With their children grown, Doc and Joan bought 25 acres on Harpswell Neck with beautiful views across the sound to Mere Point. It remains their home today.

Not long after moving to Harpswell, Doc Phillips was approached by Ralph “Chip” Black, who asked if he’d be interested in joining the Harpswell Historical Society. “I wasn’t all that interested in history,” Phillips said, “so the land trust sounded more appealing.” He joined the board of HHLT in 1993 and stayed for nearly 20 years.

The early trustees met monthly in their homes and talked about conservation while also taking over responsibility for the Tarr-Eaton House in Harpswell Center. Phillips said the town was receptive to the first steps in local land preservation.

Phillips served as president of the trust from 1996 to 2000 and served as chair of the Lands Committee. “Doc’s was a consistent, steady and dedicated presence that kept us on track and moving forward as an organization,” said former HHLT trustee Rebecca Stanley. During his time on the board, HHLT conserved more than 1,100 acres, added paid staff, built an office and expanded its presence in Harpswell.

Asked about the current direction of the HHLT, Phillips said he is very pleased with what he sees. “I think it’s going very well. There is lots of outreach and they’re offering really interesting programs for all kinds of people,” he said.

As for his ubiquitous nickname, which has nothing to do with a medical degree, Phillips explained: “My father and I had the same name and the kids in the neighborhood called me “Sonny.” My dad didn’t like that, so one time when my parents had the flu, I brought them orange juice and my dad said, ‘Thanks, Doc,’ and the name stuck. My father then paid kids in the neighborhood a quarter to call me Doc instead of Sonny, and this was during the Depression, when a quarter was a lot of money. So, they all called me Doc and it’s been that way ever since!”