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Colleagues recall John Philp as good-natured leader

Colleagues recall John Philp as good-natured leader

Mar 27, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The former three-term Fremont County commissioner died Friday at age 92.

Those who served with him remember former Fremont County Commissioner John Philp for his integrity, leadership and humor. Philp died March 21 at age 92.

He was a lifelong Fremont County resident who lived and raised sheep in Lysite for many years and served on the county board from 1976 through 1988.

He was appointed in February 1976 to fill the remainder of the term of Commissioner Wally Pearson, who died the previous month. Philp won election to a full term that November and was re-elected in 1980 and 1984.

He was the father of former State Rep. Frank Philp, who served 17 years in the Wyoming Legislature.

Fellow commissioners

"John (Philp) is one of those people that is truly, truly dedicated to the people of this county," Edwin "Butch" Hudson said.

Hudson, of Lander, sat on the county board with Philp from 1983 through 1990.

Fellow former Commissioner Ralph Urbigkeit, of Crowheart, had a similar high opinion of Philp.

"He was a genuine, old-time rancher ... there was nothing false there," he said,

Urbigkeit served on the board 1987 through 1996.

Though Hudson's family had ties to the Philps, it took time for him to become friends with John Philp, Hudson said. Once they did, however, they were close for the rest of their lives.

Hudson's parents lived in Lysite around the time he was born, Hudson said. They became friends with the Philp family, he said. The family friendship did not mean the men were friends when they met on the commission, however.

"When we got together (on the commission) ... we didn't quite hit it off right away," Hudson said.

When Hudson joined the county board in 1983, he and Philp disagreed about some issues, such as how often the commission should meet and increasing the number of commissioners.

"However, John and I became very, very good friends over the time we served," Hudson said.

Meeting constituents

While in office, Hudson made it a priority to meet with residents across the county to hear their concerns. Philp came around to the idea as well, Hudson said.

One year, Hudson set up a forum with constituents in Shoshoni, and Philp said he was going to meet him there. When Hudson arrived, so many people were crowded around, speaking to Philp, Hudson could not even see the other commissioner was there.

"He finally came up to me, he said, 'I've got to go up to the ranch.' I said, 'Is everything all right?' He said ... 'Now I know what you mean that the input with people is where you should be,'" Hudson said.

Hudson came to respect Philp deeply.

"He was one of those few men who truly, truly knew how to listen, and when he got all of the facts made the right decision," Hudson said. "He was a dear, dear man ... the Philp family are the most honest people I have ever been associated with."

The two men also crossed paths outside of county government.

"In the summer time he used to put his sheep up around the South Pass area," Hudson said. "I got a cabin up there and later got acquainted with him up there."

Economic downturn

Times were tough in Fremont County when the two shared the board. Uranium mining in the Gas Hills was shutting down and so was the U.S. Steel mine near Atlantic City, Hudson said.

Those industries, along with and Empire Tie and Lumber, all went out of business within three years, former Commissioner Tom Satterfield remembered. Their collapse slashed the county's assessed value and gutted its tax revenue.

"It hit $512 million in 1984, and four years later it was $200 million, Satterfield said, referring to the county's assessed valuation. "And it really did not climb back up until after the gas plant was built in Lysite when the assessed value went back up to $600 million."

Satterfield, now of Cheyenne, served on the commission 1987 through 2002.

Philp, as chairman, steered the county through the rough period, Satterfield said. In 1987, the commission cut the county's budget by 7.5 percent across the board, which was a blow to employees, but Philp did not want the reduction to be permanent.

"John took a leadership role in trying to find a different way to budget so it wasn't quite so painful," Satterfield said.

An influx of new commissioners in 1987, made an experienced hand even more important. In that year, the number of commissioners rose from three to five, and

Philp held meetings with all the county's employees to gather suggestions for balancing the budget, Satterfield recalled.

In the end, commissioners borrowed from the county's $7.5 million cash reserve, paying it back every year, he said.

"In the next several years, we were able to restore that seven and a half percent to the employees," Satterfield said.

Personal touch

The former commissioners also remembered Philp for his personality.

Hudson recalled he was committed to his duties but also took advantage of his regular trips to Lander to care for his animals.

"He very often had a sheep in the back of the pickup, one that he would be taking to the vet or one that something that had to be done, but I don't know that he ever missed a meeting," Hudson said. "He was such a dedicated person."

Satterfield still chuckles remembering Philp's sense of humor.

Lorraine Ocenas, the longtime county assessor, was a renowned joke teller, Satterfield said, and many of her wisecracks involved sheep herders.

"She always inserted John (Philp)'s name in these jokes, but John always took it really well," Satterfield said. "Sometimes he'd laugh so hard he had to leave the room ... It was usually at some dinner or banquet -- it wasn't done in private."

Hudson remained friends with Philp until the end of his life.

Hudson said, "Last time I talked to him on the phone ... he came out and asked me, 'What are you going to do now?' I said, 'John, I'm going to do some relaxing,' and he said, 'Good for you; it's time.'"

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