A native of Brooklyn, New York, Phil West graduated from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York in 1963 as an honors major in English Literature. He entered the prestigious Union Theological Seminary from which he received a masters of divinity degree in 1967 with a year of research at Cambridge University in England, the alma mater of Roger Williams. That research resulted in his first scholarly article, published in the Journal of New Testament Studies. For the next two decades he served as a pastor or director at United Methodist churches in New York and Connecticut.
Beyond traditional parish work, he ran a settlement house on the Bowery in New York City and delivered medicines to victims of the South African-sponsored civil war in Mozambique. More recently he assisted people displaced by Liberia’s civil war. He has also been involved in developing affordable housing, day care centers, and other community services–activities begun in his early years that he has continued to the present day.
When Phil came to Rhode Island in 1988 with his wife, the Reverend Anne Grant and their two sons, he became executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island serving from 1988 until his retirement in 2006. During his eventful tenure at Common Cause, the Rhode Island branch led the nation in terms of numeric growth and financial support per member. The role played by West in the successful enactment of statutory and constitutional changes in the structure of Rhode Island’s government–culminating in the separation-of-powers amendments–prompted Rhode Island College to confer an honorary Doctor of Laws upon him in 2007.
As Common Cause director Phil hosted dozens of international delegations sent to Rhode Island by the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. He was one of three Americans invited to Russia to speak at a conference called to devise effective laws to ensure ethics in government. From 2010 to 2013 Phil taught a course entitled Ethics in Public Administration to graduate students at the University of Rhode Island. His students could not have had a more earnest and experienced professor
In retirement, Phil turned his abundant energy into writing a detailed book on the great reform crusade in which he was so intimately involved. The result was a magnum opus entitled Secrets & Scandals: Reforming Rhode Island, 1986-2006. This highly-acclaimed 800-page volume, brought into print in 2014 by the Rhode Island Publications Society, was crafted from Phil’s personal experiences and his meticulously kept notes of the events that he had witnessed.
No other Rhode Island history book contains more detail on its topic. It is a tract for the times. However, the volume not only exposes the scoundrels, it also extols the efforts of a legion of Rhode Islanders who fought for ethical government and political reform. The litany of those reforms include five constitutional amendments and dozens of laws to curb deep-seated public corruption. Together they comprise one of the three momentous turning points in Rhode Island constitutional history–the other two are the Dorr Rebellion and the Bloodless Revolution of 1935.
Alas, the current tenor of Rhode Island politics reveals that Phil West–despite his amazing achievements–has yet to go many miles before he sleeps!