Storied journey

Pioneer Press Newspapers

By Daniel I. Dorfman

Staff Writer

For people who want to study the history of the later 20th Century, they can consult an encyclopedia or they can talk with Lake Bluff resident Phil Whitfield.

Whitfield, 54, has seen first hand some of the crucial events which have shaped history of the past 35 years. As a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation, Whitfield covered wars in Vietnam, the Middle East and Africa.

Now living in Lake Bluff, he works in Chicago with his wife Janet operating a public relations firm specializing in business-to-business communications. He grew up in Liverpool, England, which was also the birthplace of a band that some folks may have heard of, the Beatles.

He was a classmate with John Lennon and went swimming with the now slain folk hero on occasion. Whitfield noted the Beatles were already on their way to stardom after having four successful years in Liverpool, before their worldwide acclaim, and he interviewed Lennon in 1965.

As for Whitfield, his early years were a preview of his success. He attended Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool and Liverpool University. In 1966, he was the top graduate nationally in an exam he took upon leaving college. With he left high school, Whitfield went to work a weekly newspaper and then attended college. His father, an accountant and a devoted BBC listener, was very pleased.

“I knew I could write, but I wanted to travel. I wanted to see as many corners of the world as I could. Journalism is a great travel agent,” he said.

He worked at two morning newspapers in Britain before going to the BBC, which he thought would be a more interesting medium to work in. “Radio is the perfect medium to be a newsman. You don’t need to rely on pictures and it is instant. You can broadcast live from where you are at the moment.

“I wanted to be a war correspondent like Ernest Hemingway or Winston Churchill before he went into politics. I wanted to disprove the notion that the first causality of war is truth,” he said.

As has been the truth during most of the century, the problems in Northern Ireland were occurring in 1968 when he arrived there after being hired by the BBC. He went out and talked with the citizens and the troops at the front of the battle to try to understand what was really happening.

It was in Belfast when Whitfield encountered some danger. “My car had been hijacked. Some youths hit me over the head and tied me to a metal grill. There was a lot of blood,” he said.

Soon afterward, Whitfield was covering another of the world’s hot spots as he went to the Middle East.

He remembers crossing the Suez Canal with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. He remembers being in the Golan Heights

when a guided missile hit the car right behind him killing one of his colleagues.

But he also remembers having the ability to cover a war without the strict limitations that are now in place in the United States and in Britain. “We were the last generation to have relatively unfettered access,” he notes.

But there were problems filing reports. While describing the situation as exciting, Whitfield recalls, “We had to code cables to get around Israeli censors. In London, people knew what you were saying.”

After leaving the Middle East, Whitfield was then dispatched to the war, which to this day rips at America’s conscious.

Nearly two years after the last American troops had been pulled from combat, the North Vietnamese were about to capture Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

“I woke up to crimson flames in the sky,” he says of April 29, 1975 as the North Vietnamese were on the verge of entering the city.

Just to get to the airport was putting his life at risk. He avoided firefights and carried two Vietnamese children who were handed to him on the second-to-last helicopter to leave the city. He also managed to get a suitcase and a tape recorder on board.

Later as he was dropped off on the USS Blue Ridge, which carried other members of the press, he got his tapes, which gave details on the chaos surrounding Saigon, to a pilot who eventually got them to the BBC. These tapes turned out to be the first eyewitness account of the fall of Saigon. He believes seeing the brutality of war changed his outlook on life. “Anyone who has been in battles, appreciated the value of life and the need to make a contribution,” he said.

He came to the United States for the first time about two weeks after leaving Vietnam and toured New York City.

It was also at that time, he decided to leave journalism. “I felt I had done it. I had accomplished all I had wanted to in journalism and felt there was another world to find out about,” he said. In 1976, Whitfield was attending a party where he met his eventual wife Janet, who was studying for a semester at the London School of Economics. They kept in touch over the next decade and married in 1987.

In 1989, the couple made their home together in Lake Bluff.

“I thought it was a great community. It is a delightful environment to live in with friendly people,” he said.

The Whitfields’ public relations firm is one with great access to the Chicago media. His journalism background enables him to relate with the needs the press has as well as their limitations. He has made friends with many prominent reporters and editors in the Chicago area. He is most proud of the fact that he works in tandem with his wife and they are seen as a team. “We are here to help people. It is a tragedy people are leaving school and cannot write a letter. We have those skills and use them in written and video form,” he said.

His friends in the community laud Whitfield for his professional and personal conduct.

“He is a very personable gentleman with a lot of interesting background,” said Debbie Chiles, a professional volunteer who met Whitfield initially seven or eight years ago when they both were involved with an international relief agency.

“He is very well organized when working on a project. He seems to handle everything with aplomb and sensitivity. In all of the projects I’ve worked with him he has known what he wants as the end result. From the very beginning he knows what needs to be done and how the process should take place,” she said.

Adrian Smith, president of an international accountancy firm also born in Liverpool, sat next to Whitfield at high school. However, they did not meet again until 1993 upon seeing each other at a Lincoln Park bar through a mutual acquaintance.

He admires Whitfield for many reasons including, “His global outlook and his excellent grasp and the political issues of today and his ability to mix with people and to get to know people from all spectrum of life. Whether it is someone from the British cabinet coming to Chicago or whether it is a young journalism student, Phil has the ability to move from being a listener to a mover to a participant,” Smith said.

“People should know he has a great interest in the two communities and follows carefully the political issues such as annexations but he is also very interested in bringing to his Lake Bluff visitors from all over the world. He is always willing to invite people to his home for dinner. You always meet interesting people at Phil’s house for dinner,” Smith added.

Whitfield’s interests are the games of squash, rugby union and cricket to name just a few. In the 1990s, he took up golf. “For me the greatest challenge is to shoot 82 at Deerpath. When I started playing golf five years ago, I shot 120. It’s a great feeling to bring back a scorecard in the 80s.”

Journalism

While he may not work in a newsroom anymore, Whitfield does have plenty of thoughts on the changes, which have been made in the journalism business. “Now you can see the BBC on the computer at home. That is amazing for someone who is used to crackling telephone calls,” he said.

But not all of the changes are positive. “The most important change is that rumor and hearsay are now reported. When I started you were not permitted to report rumors. What I hope is the audience would demand less speculation and more facts.”

Whitfield is a firm believer in the importance of a free press, but also a media that can do many things.

“Without covering the courts and council meetings and education, it is the beginning of the end for democracy,” he said.

“Publishers and television executives have to understand how much they can squeeze out of a newsroom. The well-staffed news organizations always shine in the end.”

Copyright©  Pioneer Press Newspapers & the Chicago Sun-Times Co.

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