Carter Philips, longtime ‘conductor’ of Vanderbilt Commencement, has died

F. Carter Philips
F. Carter Philips

by Ann Marie Deer Owens

F. Carter Philips, BA’65, professor of classics, emeritus, and university marshal at Vanderbilt Commencement for more than two decades, died in Nashville on July 8. He was 78.

Nearly a generation of Vanderbilt alumni remember Philips as the university marshal, leading the procession to the graduation ceremonies from 1981 through 2002. He approved every aspect of the event, from the arrangement of the chairs to the sound of the musicians who accompanied the procession.

Philips was born on April 18, 1943, in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, graduating from Richard J. Reynolds High School. Philips then enrolled at Vanderbilt, where he majored in Latin and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1965.

Philips continued his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, earning a doctorate in classical studies in 1969. That year he returned to Vanderbilt as a specialist in Greek literature and papyrology, the study of ancient documents preserved on papyrus. Philips taught Greek language, literature and civilization to students at all levels. His specializations included the origin of grammatical gender, preclassical Greek literature and Greek medicine.

Robert Drews, professor of classics, emeritus, remembers teaching Philips as a freshman in 1961. “Carter was one of the best students of the Greek language that we ever had,” Drews said. “When he returned to campus as a faculty member in 1969, he took charge of the Greek language program and became notorious as a stickler for the correct pronunciation of ancient Greek.

“He also was an excellent department chair, bringing us into the computer age in the 1980s, when some of us were computer illiterates. Of course, many faculty members remember his organizational skills at Commencement during his many years as university marshal. Carter was a wonderful colleague, and those of us who served with him will never forget him.”

photograph of Carter Philips dressed in Commencement robe
University Marshal F. Carter Philips straightens out the Founder’s Medals at Commencement in May 2002. (Vanderbilt University)

Philips served in a variety of leadership roles, including department chair for a decade and associate dean for academic programs in the College of Arts and Science for four years.

He served on the Lionel Pearson Fellowship Committee and on similar committees of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South. Philips also had leadership roles with Phi Beta Kappa, the Alpha Chapter of Tennessee. His hobbies included reading, classical music, theater and travel.

Philips’ survivors include his wife of 56 years, Linda Downs Philips; his daughter, Elizabeth Philips Baird, BA’96; son-in-law, Kevin M Baird, ENG ‘96; and two grandchildren.

A requiem mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on Thursday, July 15, at Concordia Lutheran Church in Nashville. Memorial contributions may be made to St. Andrew’s Anglican Church or the charity of one’s choice.