Maroon & Gray Society Class of 2024 Dean Phillips ’69

Being part of the Maroon & Gray celebration is especially meaningful to Dean Phillips ’69 because of this year’s beneficiary: the Mental Health Matters Fund. He’s candid in sharing his mental health journey that began around the time he moved with his family from Pullman, Washington, to State College in 1964.

“I was about to enter 8th grade. It was a difficult transition for me, and I was lonely at first. It was about that time that I began what has become a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety,” Dean said. “I eventually found an amazing peer group and I am still friends with many of them after more than 50 years.” In fact, some members of this group connect for Monday night Zoom sessions—a practice that started as a way to connect during the pandemic and has continued since. They’ve also enjoyed several mini-reunions including a recent trip to the Metropolitan Opera for the premier of junior high classmate Anthony Davis’s opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. One of Dean’s friends, law professor Art LeFrancois ’69, is driving from Oklahoma City to attend the Maroon & Gray reception.

“During a mental health crisis years ago, classmate Alvin deLevie ’69, a member of the PSU board of trustees, called me daily with welfare checks and still calls me once a week,” Dean said.

Alvin shared, “Dean is one of the most caring, thoughtful, concerned, engaged and honest people I know. I am thankful for Dean’s friendship and wise counseling. He will always be one of my closest friends.”

“I could not have gotten through high school without a little help from my friends. It is so important in the battle against depression to stay connected and not become isolated,” he said. “In addition to my peer group, I stayed connected through activities like the Debate team, intramural sports and the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council. I also worked with a group of wonderful classmates to create the Purple Pocket, a teen center located in the old administration building on Fairmount Ave. The Purple Pocket was a wonderful opportunity for us to create a safe space to gather, and it was very fulfilling to help make it happen.”

While Dean made it through school immersing himself in activities to combat loneliness and depression, he believes it’s important to acknowledge that some kids aren’t as fortunate. “I know I was not alone in my feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression at the time, and I feel that young people today, in these turbulent times, are struggling with mental health issues even more,” he said.

His empathy for today’s youth and his own experiences have inspired Dean to get personally invested in supporting the Mental Health Matters fund by working to fundraise before the Celebration (on April 26). “Back in my day, there wasn’t anything available in school to help those of us who were struggling with mental health issues. I am so glad there are folks today who take this seriously and are working to remediate the problems,” he said.

Education Foundation President Mary Kay Montovino said, “The Mental Health Matters Fund has become a cornerstone for our efforts as a foundation. We are grateful to our district administrators and educators who identified this need for additional funding and for their commitment to addressing student mental health and well-being. And, of course, we’re grateful for alumni like Dean who support the fund and have joined us in promoting its tremendous value.”

Dean’s memories from State High include educators and coaches who had a positive influence: “My English teacher, Callie Kingsbury, who encouraged my love of books, and Harold Griffiths, who encouraged those of us concerned about issues of the day, like the Viet Nam War, to express our views and defend our positions even though he strongly disagreed. I also want to acknowledge Coach Ron Pifer who taught Physical Education and treated those of us not participating on one of the varsity teams with the same respect he gave to his athletes. I looked forward to gym class and gained confidence in my physical abilities. I participated in intramural sports, and they were an important escape from my mental health problems,” he shared.

Dean also recalls a five-way Student Council race in which he was the dark horse candidate. “I had run for homeroom representative four times and had lost every time, so why did I think I could get elected schoolwide? I didn’t but gave it a shot. I gave a pretty good speech about unity, tolerance and working to break out of the clique system that seemed to define much of our high school life. I guess it resonated because I finished tied with Doug West, a friend, who had voted for me. There was a run-off election and surprisingly, I won! Doug and I remain good friends to this day,” he said.

In his time since graduation, Dean has earned a long list of accomplishments and said he’s most proud of his community service efforts which have included the State College Borough Council (he was the first Penn State undergraduate elected to the council). Mark Jinks ’70, then-USG President at PSU, was instrumental in Dean’s election to the council. Dean also served on the Lower Gwynedd Parks and Recreation Board, and the Board of Philadelphia Young Playwrights. “I’m also proud of my service to the Pennsylvania Judicial System for which I have received citations from the Pennsylvania Senate and House. Thompson Reuters also identified me as one of Pennsylvania’s Top 100 Lawyers in my last four years in practice,” he said.

“As both houses of the Pennsylvania General Assembly recognized, Mr. Phillips brought his fervent advocacy skills to the advancement and protection of our judicial processes in the same manner he brought for his grateful clients over a distinguished career as a courtroom lawyer. Pennsylvanians thank Mr. Phillips for his thoughtful protection of due process through the considered enactment and interpretation of the rules governing our Pennsylvania courts,” said U.S. District Court Judge Mark Kearney, (E.D. Pa.).

Dean’s wife Mary Kohart is one of Pennsylvania’s lawyers with a significant track record of pro bono and community service. He proudly shared, “She was the first woman to Chair the Committee of 70 in Philly and for two decades has been Chancellor to the Episcopal Church. I am proud of our three children: Caroline, a compliance officer for a New York securities firm, Katie, who works for the Midwife Center in Pittsburgh and is dedicating her career to nonprofit work, and Dean Robert, a lawyer in Pittsburgh.”  

In addition to supporting fundraising efforts for Mental Health Matters, Dean has partnered with friend and fellow alumnus Dr. Ned Kalin ’69, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Psychiatry, to work on programming for SCASD students. “Ned is one of the leading researchers and clinicians and I’m excited that he’s agreed to share his expertise,” Dean said. 

Dean shared some advice for today’s students, reminding them that many of their peers are struggling, even if it’s not outwardly noticeable. “High school is not an easy time. I urge all students to respect and be kind to themselves as well as others. And, when things seem overwhelming seek help from your friends, parents, teachers, and counselors. Take advantage of the resources available. There is no shame in struggling or seeking help,” he said.

To conclude, Dean said, “My circle of friends was so important in helping me manage my mental health struggles. I’m grateful we’ve stayed connected and I’m extremely proud of all of them, including my classmates who made careers in the State College Area school system including Anne Wright Fredericks, Linda Bickel Koch, Bill Tussey, Marilyn Byers, Bonnie Wentzel Berry, Bonnie Wheeler McMiniment and Randy Bitner, all class of ’69. It’s an honor to receive this recognition from the foundation.”

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