The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


January 5, 2014

300 bid farewell to Merle Phillips

SUNBURY — Many of the more than 300 people who came to remember Merle Phillips at his funeral Saturday knew him through his political career. But everyone left with a good idea of Phillips, the man.

Specifically, the family man who loved his grandchildren and hunting and held the Marine Corps close to his heart, given pictures and mementos that filled Emmanuel Bible Fellowship Church, where Phillips was an elder for more than 50 years.

“He always said, ’Just bury me in a pine box,’” said Jane Bysko, one of Phillips’ five children. “He got something a little fancier, but we kept it as he wanted.”

His son, Dr. Michael Phillips, gave a wink and a nod to his father in his eulogy.

“If you knew my father really well,” Michael Phillips said, “you know he is somewhere really enjoying all this fuss and attention.”

That included an honor guard of the Pennsylvania Capitol Police standing by his casket at all times. Later, several Sunbury police cruisers would lead the funeral cortege down Market Street “which he really wanted,” Bysko said. “He didn’t like the alleys. ’Why would you go down an alley?’ he’d say. He really loved Market Street.”

An honor guard of Marines performed an official military salute and send-off of Phillips at Orchard Hills Cemetery, where he was laid to rest overlooking the Valley he’d represented for more than 30 years in the state House of Representatives.

In the church, Phillips seemed just as alive in a continual slide show that gave a good idea of his personal side. Among the many facets of his life were hunting parties and the game he caught, lots of babies and family pictures, a young Phillips in his Marine uniform and sporting a large insignia tattoo.

Bysko remembered her father as fanatical about his lawn — “the bushes were cut perfect” — and hunting, having bagged a deer just last month.

Recently, “He was going around the house saying what needed to be fixed,” Bysko said, and noting that the snowblower needed pins of some sort to keep working.

“He was preparing,” she said. “He really took care of the family.”

Phillips made it to Bysko’s Connecticut residence to welcome home her son-in-law, who had been ill, and rallied for a wonderful Christmas before succumbing Monday at age 85.

“He was a big believer that everyone deserved a first, second and third chance,” said state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, who worked for Phillips his entire Harrisburg career, beginning as a summer intern. “If you were seeking help for yourself, he felt you deserved it.”

Phillips encouraged Culver to run for his seat in the state’s 108th Legislative District after his retirement, but stayed back when it came to her governing.

“He’d say ’This is not my job. It’s your job,’” she said. “He gave no comments, but he listened if I needed him to.”

Culver was among Valley dignitaries attending Saturday’s services, which included state Rep. Kurt Masser, R-107, Elysburg; state Sen. John Gordner, R-27, Berwick; Northumberland County Coroner James Kelley; and Sunbury Mayor David Persing, who called Phillips a “go-to guy.”

When asked what Phillips meant to Sunbury, Persing’s wife, Kathaleen, interjected: “I don’t think you can put that into words.”

“There is no one here who did not benefit from knowing Merle Phillips,” the mayor said. “He was great to be around and always the first to help. ... I don’t know that there’ll be another like him.”


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