POSTED ON JANUARY 9, 2013:
Growing Up in the Philbrook
The story of a famous family
It would be hard to imagine Oklahoma without thinking of the Phillips family. My organization, Voices of Oklahoma, is pleased to share the personal story of Virginia and Elliot "Chope" Phillips and much about the Philips family and many others. Whether you think of Phillips 66, the PhilTower and Philcade buildings, or the Philbrook Museum of Art, you will learn about the birth of the oil business in Oklahoma, a lot about ranching, a good deal about philanthropy. Moreover, you'll hear from a woman whose obituary rightly describes as having a "down-to-Earth grace that few people possess."
Voices of Oklahoma interviewed Elliot and Virginia Phillips in 2009 in the family office in Amarillo. Elliot, the son of oilman Waite and Genevieve Phillips, was born in Okmulgee. At the time of our conversation, Elliot was 91 years old and Virginia was 86. Elliot's nickname, by which he is known by almost everyone, is Chope. He talked about working on his Dad's ranch along with several cousins. "I was a kid considerably younger then they ... and they started calling me 'chopo,' which is a Spanish word," he said. "It's kind of a slang word for 'shorty.' We just shortened it to Chope. As far as I'm concerned, I am the only one in the world that has that name."
When Chope's dad made his first significant oil strike in 1918, the family moved to Oklahoma, and later, in 1927, they moved to Tulsa on a little farm about two miles outside of town. That home, known then and today as Philbrook; is today's home to the Philbrook Museum of Art. Chope remembered that "it was a big house but I'd have been just as happy living in a log cabin, or happier probably," he said.
Virginia reminded Chope, however, about roller-skating on the third floor at Philbrook.
Elliot attended school at Tulsa's Holland Hall and then Cascia Hall. He finished high school at Culver Military School in Indiana. "I wasn't a very good student," Chope said. After graduation, he enrolled at Menlo Junior College in California, and after a couple of years, he was able to transfer to Stanford.
During the war, Elliot was not drafted but he enlisted in the army as a buck private. He completed his military service as a second lieutenant.
"I always wanted to get in the ranching business," Chope said, despite his father's interest in having him join the family oil business. "I was a cowboy and a rancher, a pretty good one."
He said he had worked on his father's ranch as a kid, "just as a, you know, a common hand and I enjoyed it." When his father donated 90,000 acres of Philmont, the 300,000-acre family ranch, to the Boy Scouts, "I thought that was a great thing."
While he said he would have liked to have a part of that land for himself, he tells about his dad selling the remaining acreage to someone else for about $7 an acre, "and you know, you don't go out and buy country like that for $7 an acre now."
Virginia said her father-in-law "tolerat[ed]" his son's interest in ranching, despite his hopes that Chope would follow in his oil business footsteps.
Both Chope and Virginia told many stories about Waite and Genevieve. They spoke about the ups and downs of the oil business, about dozens of generous gifts to charities that we all recognize (St. John's Hospital, the Salvation Army, the Boy Scouts, Philbrook Museum) and the important role the Philips family played in starting Southern Hills Country Club, giving about 290 acres that was a family farm where Chope used to ride horses. In 1935, when Chope was 17, his dad gave another $25,000 gift to build the clubhouse on what has become a world famous course.
Both Chope and Virginia speak fondly of Waite and Genevieve. "He thought money should be used as a tool to help people, help society, help something. And if you aren't going to put it to good use, then you shouldn't have it," Chope said.
This important family theme came up again when Chope related his family's views on wealth and philanthropy. "The only things we really keep is what you give away," he said. "There's pretty good truth in that."
Virginia remembered spending many days with her in-laws and how she was treated more like a daughter than a daughter-in-law. She and Chope told stories about travels with family, visiting with Will Rogers, helping start Tulsa's airport and living very modestly on working ranches that barely had electricity. She remembers her in-laws' love of Italy, especially Lake Como. She talked about how much their visits there influenced the design of Philbrook and even Waite and Genevieve's final resting place in California.
The Chope and Virginia Phillips story at voicesofoklahoma.com is certainly about their lives as well as the whole Philips family. When we lost Virginia in 2011, it reminded us of the importance of collecting oral histories when we can -- to preserve the legacy of friends, neighbors, and celebrities who have touched our lives in many ways. In our conversation, Virginia offered her own good advice. "Try to find what you really love doing. Work at that. Because you will enjoy it and the money will take care of itself."
More good advice from the Philips family.
Voices of Oklahoma is an oral history website dedicated to preserving Oklahoma's history 'one voice at a time'. You can hear the entire Chope and Virginia Philips story and many more interviews contributed by Oklahomans you know or should know.
John Erling is the founder of Voices of Oklahoma. John was a radio broadcaster for 45 years, 30 of which were in Tulsa where he hosted "Erling in the Morning." He is an inductee into the Oklahoma Broadcasters Hall of Fame and he can be heard along with Chope and Virginia Phillips at voicesofoklahoma.com.
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