NewsPub Notes

Phil Sanderlin: A Journalist As a Civic Hero? You’ve Got to be Kidding!

Phil Williams, his editor, reminds me that June 22 marks 15 years since Phil Sanderlin died. Who was Phil Sanderlin? He covered local government for The Athens Observer, a weekly paper that preceded Flagpole here and was the alternative voice of Athens, as Flagpole is now. Phil covered the city council and the county commission. He had to do both, since it was before unification. He wrote about the planning commission, too, and local politics. Phil was scrupulously objective in all his local government coverage, no matter what his own political views were or his feelings toward the officials and candidates he covered.

And Phil did have feelings and attitudes and political opinions. He just kept them out of his local government coverage. Around the office or sitting at a bar, this cynical wit told you what he really thought. He also did a lot of non-governmental writing for The Observer and cartooning. Phil had a primitive cartoon style, but the crude drawings were vessels for his sharp observations. He also wrote humorous pieces so funny you couldn’t believe they were by the same guy who reported the government.

Phil wrote a piece about how a light snow or ice storm affects us here that still makes me laugh. He would tackle anything and even agreed to write a sports column for the “Sportsview” supplement we put out for football games. Phil’s contribution was written by an over-the-top, hard-drinking, fanatical Dawg fan named “Rod Macho.” In 1979 Georgia played small-college pushover Wake Forest, coached by John Mackovic, who went on to a successful coaching career in pro football. In “Sportsview” that week, Macho (I mean, come on, Mackovic) sneeringly dismissed the Wake Forest Deacons as “Mackovic’s Meatballs.” Somebody sent Mackovic a copy, and he went ballistic at the disrespect. He posted copies of the article in the locker room and got his team so fired up that they came over here  and beat Georgia 22-21. Phil was at the press conference after the game when Mackovic stormed in still fuming in spite of his team’s incredible upset and demanded, “Where’s Macho?” Phil kept quiet, thankful that he had written under an alias.

Phil was so funny and cynical and irreverent that we always felt we were wasting his talents covering government. Perhaps we were, but for 26 years his was the trusted voice that told people what their government was doing, much as Blake Aued does today in Flagpole. As our political discourse has fragmented into ideology-driven rants on the internet, objective, dispassionate reportage is needed more than ever.

Phil was large and unkempt and lived alone. He didn’t drive a car but walked a lot—making him a target for the jibes of college boys speeding by. He bummed rides when he could and took taxis when he had to. After work, which frequently meant after meetings, he always stopped by his favorite bar for a libation and conversation. He read a lot and seemed to know everything. You could call his the perfect life for a reporter, if you didn’t have to live it. He knew everybody, or at least everybody knew him, and he went home to his lonely apartment only as a last resort.

The Athens we have today is enhanced by Phil Sanderlin, who, like that ancient Athenian, “saw life clearly and saw it whole.” His attention through all those late-night meetings is a gift paid forward and puts Phil among that pantheon of Athenians who have immersed themselves in the life of our community. This is the sense in which we stand on the shoulders of giants, even though we may not know who they were. They are our citizens who have honored the Athenian Oath, inscribed on the base of our statue of Athena, which concludes:

“We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

Phil Sanderlin might scoff at a working reporter being included in such company, but all his scrutiny of Athens indeed quickened the public’s sense of civic duty and transmitted this city greater and more beautiful to us. Can we do less?