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Sandy Grade School community remembers beloved principal James Phillips

by:  JAMES PHILLIPS

James Phillips was one of those principals who knew just about every child's name, and greeted him or her on the front steps every morning. On the morning announcements, he said, 'Have a good day or not, the choice is yours.'

The beloved Sandy Grade School principal -- and former saxophonist of Cherry Poppin' Daddies -- died last February of complications from cancer at age 49.

Almost a year after Phillips' death, staff members say the Sandy Grade community is still very shaken but has continued his traditions, such as saying his motto on the morning announcements and greeting students at the front steps.

The Sandy Grade community has preliminary plans to place a bench near those front steps in Phillips' name. And in the fall, the school received its Green Schools Award from Clackamas County and was able to honor Phillip's early efforts in making Sandy Grade a more sustainable school.

Phillips was employed in the Oregon Trail School District from August 2004, when he was hired as the music teacher at Cedar Ridge Middle School, until his death. He was promoted to dean of students in 2006, then principal at Sandy Grade in 2007.

According to a story published in the Sandy Post in 2007, Phillips joined the Eugene-based swing band Cherry Poppin' Daddies in 1988 while he was earning his master's degree in music at the University of Oregon.

He played with them through 1992, took some time off and played with the band again until 1996, but left before the band released its biggest hit, 'Zoot Suit Riot.'

'When you consider all that he accomplished -- to go from a rock 'n' roll band onto a career as a principal -- he was incredibly talented,' Kathy Wagner, a third-grade teacher at Sandy Grade, said. 'He was 20 credits away from having an engineering degree before he came to Oregon to study music theory. That's quite a diversity of skills.'

Wagner credited Phillips with emphasizing 'writing and a kinder, gentler attitude toward children' at Sandy Grade.

She also remembered how Phillips let creativity flourish, both for children and adults. At one point, Phillips helped Wagner to paint her classroom, something she'd wanted to do for some time.

'At all levels, he was just a great person,' Steve Snow, the school's counselor said. He described the wonderful tribute Phillips' memorial service was, where people from every aspect of his life came to celebrate him and many Sandy Grade students spoke.

Both Wagner and Snow said current Sandy Grade principal Kim Ball has been a wonderful addition to the school, especially in such a difficult time.