by Heidie (Raine) Senseman '23
If you ask Jim Phipps '68 about his role in building Cedarville University’s Department of Communication, he redirects you. He wants to talk about anyone other than himself.
He tells you about a student, or his wife, or the catalog of Cedarville faculty members who carried the load with him. He tells you that the people around him are the ones responsible for the department’s success.
“This community’s done more for me than I’ve ever done for it,” he says, chuckling at the suggestion that he’s special.
But if you listen closely, you realize that there’s a glimmer of autobiography tucked into each of Phipps’ anecdotes — quiet details that reveal his stamp on Cedarville.
“He’s too humble to say it, but I tell everyone: You can’t tell the story of Cedarville Communication without talking about Dr. Phipps,” Derrick Green ’97, current department chair, said. “He built us.”
And perhaps that’s the best way to characterize Jim Phipps: a builder. He looks at people, departments, churches — even household projects — and pours himself out to strengthen them. His handiwork bears his mark.
Indeed, Cedarville’s Department of Communication can look at Phipps’ 52 years of service and echo, “He built us.”
But Phipps wasn’t always the invested leader that Cedarville community members know him as today. In fact, when he first arrived at Cedarville in 1964, he was a reluctant and overwhelmed student.
Phipps was raised in northern California and planned to study pre-law at Stanford University on a full-ride scholarship. He’d heard about Cedarville through his Baptist church, but he ruled it out due to finances. If he chose Cedarville, he’d have to sell his car to make the tuition payment.
“I put a lot of work into that car,” Phipps explained. “It was special to me.”
One night during his senior year of high school, Phipps rushed out the door to attend a prayer meeting. As he started driving toward the church, he prayed, “Lord, I’ve made my decision. Let me go to Stanford and keep the car.”
Four miles down the road, Phipps flipped his car three times before wrapping it around a tree. He had to crawl out the back window to escape. During his recovery in a nearby hospital, Phipps was greeted by an attorney. The attorney asked Phipps to identify the kind of car he’d been driving because the accident left it mangled beyond recognition.
“On his way out, that attorney said to me, ‘Well, you must have a reason to live, because you shouldn’t be alive,’” Phipps said. “I figured from then on that Cedarville was my reason to live.”
Phipps began classes at Cedarville the following fall, majoring in English and speech. Insurance money from the accident paid for his first term tuition.
As an undergraduate, Phipps kept busy. In addition to his English and speech degrees, he was one class away from a B.A. in history and one class away from a B.A. in Bible. When he wasn’t in class, he radio-broadcasted for Cedarville’s Yellow Jacket basketball team — a role he maintained for over 30 years throughout his teaching career — competed on the debate team, performed odd jobs, and met his wife, Pat (Bonzo) ’70, through a mutual friend in the dining hall.
After 54 years of marriage, Pat still smiles when she recalls her and Jim’s first date.
“He took me to a basketball game at Wilmington College that he was broadcasting for,” she said. “I sat in the stands with one of my girlfriends while he did the radio, but I quite enjoyed it.”
Jim and Pat dated for just under a year and got married at the end of his senior year in 1968. But aside from his new marriage, Phipps didn’t know what life would include after graduation.
He had been considering graduate school when John Reed, former chair of the speech and English department, called him into his office just weeks before graduation.
“Dr. Reed didn’t ask, he just told me: ‘We’ve gotta have a teacher for Fundamentals of Speech in the fall, and you’re it,’” Phipps said.
Though not what he was expecting, Phipps accepted the position. He spent the summer leading up to the school year working as a bricklayer and preparing for the classroom.
However, the intensifying Vietnam crisis complicated Phipps’ plans. Late in his first year of teaching, Phipps received a draft notice.
“We thought he was going,” Pat recalled. “I went with him to the processing station in Cincinnati, thinking we were saying goodbye. But at the end of the day, he came back. They said an old knee injury disqualified him.”
It was as if the attorney’s words from Phipps’ senior year of high school were ringing out again: “You must have a reason to live, because you shouldn’t be alive.”
And truly, Phipps made serving the Lord at Cedarville his reason to live.
After Phipps’ first year as a faculty member, Reed left Cedarville to teach at another institution. Reed’s resignation created a leadership need in the department — a department now consisting solely of Phipps and Miriam Maddox, a faculty member already busy with coaching debate, directing theater, and instructing Fundamentals of Speech.
“I had to step up,” Phipps explained. “When I came to Cedarville as a student, I thought I’d get my degree and move on. Dr. Reed leaving changed that. I realized that he’d been planning for me to be his replacement all along.”
But Reed’s resignation wasn’t the only transition that Phipps had to manage. In 1970, the same year Phipps took over as chair of the Department of Speech and English, the department split. Out of that split emerged the Department of English, now the Department of English, Literature, and Modern Languages, and the Department of Communication.
And left to lead the Department of Communication stood Jim Phipps, a 25-year-old with two years of teaching experience, no graduate degrees, and the responsibility to build a department from the ground up.
“Oh, I never worked alone,” Phipps said, shaking his head.
Phipps took on heavy workloads in his new leadership role. He earned a master’s in broadcasting and a doctorate in communication from The Ohio State University in the early years of his professorial career while also teaching full loads, helping raise his and Pat’s three children — Lori (Phipps) Vasquez ’96, Sheri (Phipps) Lichtensteiger ’99, and Tim ’03, covering basketball games, and faithfully attending Wednesday night prayer meetings at Grace Baptist, his local church.
But even after completing his graduate studies, Phipps devoted extra hours to Cedarville and the local community. He taught over 20 credit hours per term, coached the men’s golf team, served for 16 years as village mayor, cheered all three of his children on through graduate degree programs, and interim pastored at six different churches — some as far away as Toledo — over his 52 years as a professor.
“I had around 50 advisees, plus classes, plus basketball — but back then, we never worried about how much the workload was,” he said. “We just wanted to get the job done for our students. And I still miss the students.”
Two of those students who Phipps invested in currently serve as Department of Communication faculty members: Jeff Gilbert ’87 and Green.
A Lasting Impact
Gilbert wasn’t sure of his next steps when he graduated from Cedarville.
“Dr. Phipps really helped me along in my career. He was the referral for my first newspaper job out of college,” Gilbert shared. “And he helped me get hired back here years later.”
Phipps remembers teaching Gilbert in a sportscasting class, and he reflects fondly on Gilbert’s career success.
“He just did marvelously at that little paper in Virginia,” Phipps said. “We brought him back to teach here because of his experience. He knows what he’s talking about.”
Gilbert also exemplifies what Phipps describes as his favorite type of student: those who arrived at college uncertain of their future but grew in confidence, skill, and direction over their years of study.
“Jeff was one of those,” Phipps added. “A local boy, wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but took off in sports journalism. I loved watching those kinds of students develop. Derrick Green was one of those, too.”
Green transferred to Cedarville as a communication major in January 1994. As a part of his role as department chair, Phipps met with all transfer students.
“My parents had some reservations about leaving me at Cedarville,” Green explained. “But after we met Dr. Phipps, that all went away.”
Phipps taught Green in multiple classes, including Theories of Mass Media, Persuasive Theory, and History of Public Address — “The only Phipps class I ever got a B in,” according to Green.
Pat echoes the difficulty of History of Public Address. Once while studying in Cedarville’s Centennial Library, she overheard a table of students complaining about their assignments and required references for a course. When she spoke up and asked what class they were talking about, the group told her: Dr. Phipps’ History of Public Address.
“I told them, ‘That does sound difficult. I’ll tell my husband when I get home,’” Pat said, chuckling. “You should’ve seen their faces.”
But of all the classes Phipps taught, none stick out quite like Interpersonal Communication, especially to Green.
“That class taught me what godly relationships with people are really about,” Green said. “I’d been having some difficulty with family, and Dr. Phipps told us one day: ‘If your relationships with other people aren’t right, your relationship with God isn’t right.’ That changed me.”
Green holds onto that and the many other lessons that Phipps instilled in him. His newfound appreciation for meaningful and godly relationships blossomed into a desire to teach that led him back to Cedarville years later — along with several gently persuasive phone calls from Phipps.
“My first year as a faculty member was Phipps’ last year as chair,” Green added. “I count it an honor and a privilege to almost literally sit in Dr. Phipps’ chair as chair of the department, and with every student, I just hope to impact them the way that Dr. Phipps impacted me.”
Much like how John Reed trained up Phipps — a young, passionate Cedarville graduate— to take over the department, so also did Phipps build up Green as a future leader for the Department of Communication. Chuck Elliot ’77 took over as department chair in 2003 after Phipps stepped down from the role, and Green took over as chair in 2014.
But what does the great leader do when he passes the baton? What does the builder do when he’s no longer building?
Well, for starters, Phipps’ retirement at the end of the 2019–2020 school year didn’t stop him from investing in the University and its surrounding community. If anything, it opened new doors for him.
In retirement, Phipps has taken over as Grace Baptist’s vehicle manager, done yard work for himself and two widowed neighbors, served as chairman of the Cedarville Opera House, built custom golf club sets, and kept busy building and tinkering through his beloved odd jobs.
When asked about the things he builds, Jim Phipps smiles before a word comes out of his mouth.
“Oh yes, I build things often,” he chirps. “Woodworking, construction, bricklaying. I like working with vehicles and engines, plumbing and electric, roofing. My dad was a missions pastor, and whenever we moved to a new town, we’d draw those churches up and build them right there.”
Green responds differently to the question.
“He’s the best builder I know,” Green says. “Everything we have in the Department of Communication exists because he built the foundation for it.” Pat Phipps has something to add, too.
“Oh yes, my husband is the best builder I know. He pours himself into whatever it is he's doing. I think seeing things grow is what kept him building all these years.”