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Library volunteer honored

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

COVINGTON -- Bob Phillips was a self-taught expert in genealogical research and always happy to share his knowledge with others. Phillips helped many residents of Newton County and other counties far and wide learn their family history. He did it all free of charge, because it was his pleasure.

Phillips was posthumously honored by the Newton County Library, where he was a volunteer, earlier this month. A plaque bearing Phillips' name was placed in the library's Heritage Room in his memory. The plaque was presented to his sister, Helen Hart, with whom he lived the last couple years of his life in Eatonton, continuing his research from a home computer.

Phillips died in February 2010 at the age of 73. He lived in Newton County for about 10 years until moving to a log cabin on his sister's property near the end of his life. Phillips became the go-to guy for library staff directing patrons for help with genealogical research.

"Bob was a very selfless person and would never accept payment for his research. If a person insisted on paying him for his work he would ask them to donate the money to the library," said Stevin Herald, who works at the information desk at the library.

Gayle Walker of Turpin, Okla., is one of the many people Phillips helped. She contacted Newton County Library in 2005 seeking help finding out more about her family history and was referred to Phillips. She sent him the names of four family members and he set to work finding deeds, wills, marriage records and other documents.

"He spent hours and energy on the research and money on the copies and he would even drive to cemeteries looking for headstones for me. He never would take any money," Walker said.

The two formed a long-distance friendship and Walker, her sister and cousin drove all the way from Oklahoma to visit Phillips.

"We pretty much adopted each other as family. We both agreed if you don't know where you came from, you don't know where you're going," she said.

Jane Williams worked with Phillips doing volunteer genealogical research at the library for five years. His research resulted in acquisition of several historic documents, including a list of early marriages in Jasper County and information on various cemeteries.

"We have placed these lists in a notebook which our patrons are allowed to copy if they need to as much of this information is not available yet in book form," she said.

Phillips discovered cemeteries that were not on record and found one behind a subdivision, which the builder knew of but failed to disclose. He was especially knowledgeable about Jasper and Gwinnett county history.

"He was amazing. Rarely did he ever write anything down," Williams said. "His memory was absolutely astonishing. He could remember names and places. You could ask him months later and he could tell you what you needed to know. Even though we chose the days we wanted to volunteer, he seemed to always be in the Heritage Room at some time almost every day."

Along the way, he also discovered some interesting information about his own family, said his sister. Their mother was a descendant of Robert E. Lee, for example. In addition to his passion for research, Phillips was a voracious reader and a talented oil painter and pianist.

After Phillips died, Hart wrote many of the people he had assisted and asked that they make a donation to the library in his memory. About $1,500 was collected and used to purchase history books for the Heritage Room.