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Resting on laurels, of which she has a multitude, is not Vel Phillips’ style. She prefers to describe herself simply as Milwaukee’s “most popular lawyer in town,” since she represents alleged petty criminals for little or no money. As she explains: “For instance, there’s … Well, I won’t mention her name. She’s a woman with two jobs, five kids, and trouble with the law. She doesn’t know how she’s going to pay me. I tell her we’ll talk about all that later. She says to me, ‘Well, I’ll pay some a little at a time.’ And I tell her, we’ll talk about that later. “Down at the jail,” Phillips adds, “I know they all say, ‘Oh, if you can get Vel Phillips, you’re in luck. She’s so good, and she’s articulate, and she’s so reasonable — and sometimes she doesn’t charge a thing.’ Maybe they say I’m a little old lady, but I don’t think so. I don’t look like a little old lady!” As a matter of fact, Velvalea Phillips — “I decided that didn’t work on the election ballot” — is celebrated in the Women’s Yellow Pages as an “advocate for other women and women’s rights, a trailblazer, a barnstormer, a rebel, a risk-taker, and a sister in resistance.” Of all those tags, Vel Phillips says, “It’s that last one, sister in resistance — that’s what I like.” She approves as well of the life-size statue of herself standing in the lobby of the namesake Vel Phillips YWCA in Milwaukee, erected by the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is a rendering she refers to as, “my entire five feet, one and one-half inches, and my entire 96 pounds.” There is, to be sure, a legend behind the lady and the statue: Vel Phillips is the first woman graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, the first woman and first African American member of the Milwaukee Common Council (1956-1971), the first black woman to serve on the Democratic National Committee, a friend of the late Eleanor Roosevelt, and a special ambassador for President John F. Kennedy to ceremonies in the 1960s to inaugurate the leader of the newly independent African nation of Burkina Faso. She was also the first — and to this day, the only — African American elected to constitutional office in Wisconsin, having served as Secretary of State. ‘SO LONG AS YOU SAY IT SOFTLY’ “But you know, this all isn’t really so unusual,” Phillips says of her biographical high points. “I didn’t set out to be unusual. I just happened to come along at a time when there weren’t too many women or blacks doing what I wanted to do.” One of those not-so-unusual accomplishments was the breakthrough seat on “that men’s club,” as she referred to the Common Council in an interview with Shepherd Express Metro, a weekly newspaper in Milwaukee. “It was many nights of tears,” Phillips told the Shepherd. “It was worse being a woman. I couldn’t use the bathroom. It was for the men. And then I was pregnant, and they had themselves a woman and a half.” She credits the support of a large cast of characters in her life for gaining that first political office, and with everything else that she’s accomplished — including her tenure as a juvenile court judge in Milwaukee County Circuit Court and her 16 years as a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin. Says Phillips, “I didn’t do it alone, and I always feel so guilty taking these awards they’re always giving me just for myself,” she says. A big share of credit goes to her late husband, Dale Phillips, a prominent Milwaukee attorney who specialized in real estate and estate law, and to her late mother. “My husband was the most wonderful man in the world,” Phillips said. “He was very successful in his area of law, and made us some money. He’d always call me a ‘social-work lawyer.’ But I loved him anyway. Oh, from the first day I saw him, my heart skipped a beat.” As for her mother, “She always said, ‘You can do anything you want to do, you can be anything you want to be, and you can say anything you want to say — as long as you say it softly.’ “ What she hopes to soon be saying — softly, yet firmly to some future class of young lawyers — is that attorneys are obliged to be socially conscious. “I want to teach them the idea that my friend Thurgood Marshall was committed to: lawyers should be social architects,” she said. “By virtue of their training and knowledge, lawyers work with the mindset of society. Lawyers can make social change. No matter the area of law being practiced, a lawyer should always be asking, ‘How can I improve the quality of life?’ No lawyer should leave this world without having done something good.” So that’s what Vel Phillips would like to do over the next few years. “It could be my last kick at the cat,” she said. “Whatever I get in the way of money is enough. None of that stuff is important to me — what money can buy. If they give me the right to do what I want to do, and pay me a little, I don’t even care about tenure. What am I going to do with tenure?” SWAYING HER MOTHER As a lawyer, Phillips is a natural-born storyteller. She might enjoy telling her students exactly how she came about her distinguished career: “My sister and I, we’d always sit four steps down the back stairway at our house and listen in when our parents had company. There was this one man, James W. Dorsey — a very prominent black lawyer, a big fellow with a booming voice. I just loved it when he would talk. He was always so logical, and articulate, and reasoned. Whatever side he was on, I would end up on that side. “So one day, I said to my mother, ‘Well, I just decided � I want to be a lawyer like James W. Dorsey.’ We were baking oatmeal cookies at the time. Now, my mother was always so encouraging of whatever we [girls] wanted to do. But not this time. I was really amazed — struck dumb, really — when she didn’t right away say to me, ‘Oh, that would be wonderful.’ Instead, she said, ‘Oh, I’m not sure.’ I tried to explain, but she said, ‘Oh, honey, it’ll be very difficult. It’s not what women usually do. It would be much easier if you chose a field that is traditionally a woman’s field.’ “Then, when I looked real hurt, she put her arm around me, and said, ‘Why don’t we talk about it later? If you’re really set on that, we’ll look into it.’ “Well, then I knew — there was the door, a light at the end of the tunnel. I knew I had swayed her. And that’s when I knew I could be a lawyer �- right then and there.” Vel Phillips’ mother was right. It was difficult for her daughter to find a lawyer’s job. Her first day out of law school, Vel Phillips, Esq. marched down to the office of the district attorney of Milwaukee County — all five feet, one and one-half inches, and 96 pounds. “I said, ‘You have no Negroes’ — that was the term at the time — ‘and no women, and I qualify as both,’ ” she said. “ And the D.A. looked at me as if to say, ‘Are you kidding?’ He said, ‘No indeed!’ And then he said if he wanted a black assistant he’d ask James W. Dorsey. Well, that was the second insult. I mean, why would my idol — a very well-established lawyer — want to be this man’s assistant? Then came the third insult. The D.A. told me, ‘No, indeed � your people don’t vote.’ “So that’s the job I never got,” Phillips said. “Oh well. Maybe if I had got that job, maybe I’d have just stayed there — and that would have been my career.” A DREAM NOT WILD But it is hardly Vel Phillips’ style to stay in place, or to accept things for the way they are. Last spring, she told the graduates of Marquette University: “We, the older generation, leave you great strides in medicine, science, and technology. We can reach people across the world at the click of a mouse. We can operate on babies in the womb. Dolly the sheep was cloned. “We also leave you hate crimes. Bunches and bunches of them. … We leave you an imperfect, screwed-up world — but this is your challenge: if each one of you commit yourselves to do just one project, one cause, one unselfish principle toward making this imperfect world just a wee more perfect, the advances that result will make all the awesome gains in technology pale by comparison. … The brotherhood of man and the sisterhood of women, the humanity of all people, is not so wild a dream as those who profit by delaying it would have you believe.”

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