Leechburg native confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Italy

New diplomat to get send-off

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Before assuming duties as the new U.S. ambassador to Italy, John R. Phillips will make a stop in his hometown of Leechburg.

Friends and family will gather Sept. 1 to give him a proper send-off at the Marconi Club, where Mr. Phillips' grandparents -- Italian immigrants -- and his family often gathered.

Mr. Phillips, 70, a Washington, D.C., attorney, was confirmed by the Senate three weeks ago and is expected to begin his duties in mid-September in Rome.

"I'm the president's personal representative in Italy," he said in describing his post. He will also oversee a staff of 750.

"Italy is a strategic ally for the United States and participates in many peacekeeping forces. But my mandate will be economic development, to help create partnerships between our two countries, so I hope to increase exports and imports for both. That includes reducing barriers to trade," he said in a phone interview.

"Europe is our strongest ally economically, and the United States is the biggest investor in Italy.

"There's a huge American connection, too. Some 20 million Americans trace their ancestry to Italy and 5 million Americans travel there annually. About 35,000 American students study there."

Mr. Phillips was born and raised in Leechburg and graduated from Leechburg High School in 1960. He went to Notre Dame University and the University of California Law School. He practiced public interest law in Los Angeles and has been practicing law in Washington for the past 20 years.

His wife, Linda Douglass, is a former ABC correspondent and is a vice president at Atlantic Media. She was a campaign spokeswoman for Barack Obama in 2008 and helped organize his first inauguration.

Mr. Phillips' aunt, Edna Logero, 88, of Leechburg recalled that "John was always very determined and driven, even as a kid." He is the youngest of three boys born to her older brother William and his wife Hilda.

The new ambassador has fond memories of Leechburg.

"I was born in 1942, so I remember the post-World War II times," he said. "It was a bustling steel and coal-mining area, and there were a lot of jobs. I walked to school and you knew everybody. There were two theaters in town, and as a boy of 6 or 7, I walked on my own from Third Street to the movies on Market Street, which took about 15 minutes.

"My grandparents both came from northern Italy. My grandfather, Angelo Filippi, came to Bridgeville and met his wife Lucy there. At 24, my dad, William, was offered a Ford franchise in Leechburg, and he moved there in 1936."

John's grandparents soon followed.

Lou Phillips, 69, an Upper St. Clair optometrist, is a first cousin to John and also grew up in Leechburg.

"We're very proud of him," Lou Phillips said. "He's done a lot of high-level things -- on the West Coast, he started a public-interest law firm, and in Washington, he rewrote the whistle-blower law. And I think he and his wife are close to the Obamas, and they have a lot of political and news friends. But to me, he's just Johnnie.

"We were a year apart in school, but we had some of the same friends. And of course, because we were cousins and lived close, we always had sleep-overs and family gatherings. He was good academically, and he worked hard.

"John has come back for all his high school reunions and for family reunions," his cousin added. "But this celebration is really to say thank you to the town."

Lou Phillips recently bought property along the Kiski River in Gilpin and spends many weekends there.

Mrs. Logero agreed that raising a family in the small town made it easier for her and her three siblings to keep an eye on all of the cousins. There were 11 of them.

At his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee July 30, John Phillips said he was especially proud to be ambassador to Italy because his grandparents came to this country more than 100 years ago. He said he regretted that the family name, Filippi, had been Americanized to Phillips.

Mrs. Logero said the name was changed when her older brother William, John's father, first went to school. "The teacher said Phillips was more American," she said. "My dad was furious over that."

John Phillips is very familiar with the country in which he soon will live.

"I've been to Italy more than 50 times in the last decade," he said. "My wife and I kept going there on vacation, and then I bought a villa in Tuscany in 2001 and spent eight years restoring several abandoned houses in this small, 800-year-old town."

In 2006, Mr. Phillips invited his extended family to visit his Tuscany villa -- and 32 family members visited for 10 days.

Mr. Phillips said at his Senate hearing that his D.C. law firm, which specialized in whistle-blower cases, had helped recover $55 billion from companies that were defrauding the government.

He retired from his law firm, Phillips & Cohen, to take the ambassador post.

He also founded Taxpayers Against Fraud, a nonprofit, public interest organization that promotes the use of the False Claims Act to fight fraud against the government.

The reception at the Marconi Club on River Avenue starts at 1 p.m.

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Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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