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What's Up Magazine

Frances Phillips

Mar 15, 2011 03:00AM ● By Anonymous

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It’s a scenic drive to Frances Phillips’s home in the Annapolis Roads neighborhood. The newly appointed deputy secretary for Public Health Services for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene greets me at the door. “Please, come in,” Phillips says cheerily, “and call me Fran.” Before I know it, I’ve been given a tour of the house, settled into a comfy sofa, and offered cookies and a wide selection of teas. It’s clear that this former nurse takes good care of people.

Born in New York State, Phillips grew up in Washington, D.C. “My parents were very idealistic and moved here because of John Kennedy’s New Frontier. It was a time of youth, new energy, and enthusiasm,” she explains. She went to Wilson High School, not far from the home she shared with her parents and younger sister. Graduating in the late 1960s, Phillips already knew what career she wanted to pursue; she enrolled in the nursing school at The Catholic University of America. “Catholic was a wonderful education. You had to earn a bachelor’s degree there, so you studied the humanities as well,” she recalls.

Becoming a “working woman” was a given for Phillips: she had been raised by one. “I watched my mother work every day from the time I was eight years old. My father would start consulting firms, and lose money on everything he did. At the end of their careers, my mom was the breadwinner,” Phillips says honestly. Of course it helped that she loved her job. For 40-plus years, her mother, Ellen Broderick, was secretary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “She worked for him until he died in 2003,” Phillips says. Her father has since passed away, but Mom is doing fine. “She lives in a carriage house on my sister’s property in Kansas City. She’ll be 88 in September and still drives and swims every day. She moved to Kansas City and three months later the local women’s club asked her to be its president,” Phillips chuckles.

Phillips’s first job out of college didn’t last quite as long as her mother’s. “I worked at Children’s Hospital. You graduated and you thought you knew nursing. Then you’re put in charge of a 25-bed unit...just you and an aid.” It wasn’t the workload, but the emotions that got to Phillips. “I wanted to work with teenagers,” she recalls. “We saw a lot of repeat kids that we got to know and fall in love with. Kids with leukemia, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell. I got to know about seven of them really well. They kept coming back,” she says wistfully. Within a year and a half, all seven were gone. “I used to just fall apart, one time after another. And in those days there wasn’t any recognition that staff might need support and counseling.” Her solution was to leave pediatric nursing and get a job in an emergency room. Not ideal, but working in the emergency room of the old Doctors’ Hospital at 18th and I Streets made it more convenient for Phillips to earn her master’s degree in health care administration at nearby George Washington University.

While at Catholic University, Phillips had lived in an apartment in Glover Park and had met a neighbor, Angus Phillips, or, as she calls him, “the love of my life. He had a motorcycle and worked at the [now defunct] Washington Star. I thought he was just smashing,” she says with a girlish giggle. And she still thinks so: they will celebrate their 30th anniversary on May 6. Angus’ name is no doubt familiar to anyone who reads the Washington Post’s sports section. The talented columnist and editor has been with the newspaper since 1974.

When their family came along (Madeline, now 28, and Will, now 27), the couple decided to leave D.C. and began a search for the perfect area. Annapolis (“It is its own place, it has its own identity”) was a perfect fit, as was the house they bought and still occupy...with some major renovations. Phillips took time off and stayed home with the kids until the younger one was in kindergarten. Then she found what she thought would be a temporary spot, working two days a week at the Anne Arundel County Department of Health. She stayed 20 years, serving as the head of the department (health officer) for 15 years. She was in charge of 860 people, with a budget of $52 million. Everyone from food inspectors to school nurses fell under her supervision. “It was a job I loved and I had a passion for the mission—the mission being to help government do everything they could to make Anne Arundel County the healthiest place in Maryland,” she says. And what about her being the first woman to ever hold the post? “It was a time for women in this area to assume leadership. I became health officer at the same time that the first woman was appointed school superintendent and, likewise, the president of the community college. There was an informal sisterhood in the county. We have some outstanding women in leadership positions in this area,” she adds.

Phillips hadn’t really considered leaving the county—until she got a call in the fall of 2008, asking if she wanted to meet with the governor about a position with the state health organization. “When you get a call like that, you listen,” she laughs. There was one caveat, however. The governor wanted to see her the day she and her husband were catching a plane for a vacation in the south of France. “Okay, I’ll meet with him,” she told the caller, “but he can’t be late!” He wasn’t. And by the time the couple cleared security at BWI, she’d gotten a phone call asking: “How soon can you start?”

In December 2008 she started her new job, and she is busy becoming acclimated. “I thought the job might be just a matter of moving the decimal point,” she confides, referring to her $474 million state budget. “But I am dealing with a great deal more.” Among her responsibilities are two chronic care hospitals, the state forensic laboratories, and the office of the medical examiner.

And, of course, this consummate caregiver continues to look after her husband, their grown children, and herself. Trim, energetic, and youthful, the 58-year-old Phillips is a four-times-a-week regular at Annapolis Jazzercise Fitness Center. Her mantra is “Six at 60,” she laughs. “Still a size six when I’m 60 years old.” For this dedicated, purpose-driven, health-conscious lady, it will be a piece of should pardon the expression.