Art at Philbrook

Portraits of Waite and Genevieve Phillips hang at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa. JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World Magazine

The richest banker in town, J.B. Elliott, didn’t want his daughter settling for “a boy off the farm.”

Genevieve, or Veve as her friends called her, met the love of her life in 1903, when Waite Phillips came to the small town of Knoxville, Iowa, to work as a bookkeeper for the struggling Hawkeye Coal Co. It wasn’t exactly a stable or high-paying job, and Elliott knew it wouldn’t support the well-to-do lifestyle that his daughter took for granted.

Phillips, with his mother and father’s reluctant permission, had left his family’s farm at age 16 to go west with his twin brother, Wiate. The boys looked and acted so much alike that their brothers and sister had trouble telling them apart, and they had been inseparable their entire lives.

Never staying long in one spot, they worked for railroads, timber camps and a shingle factory before Wiate died from a ruptured appendix in Spokane, Washington, in 1902. A heart-broken Phillips, only 19 years old, brought the coffin back to Iowa for burial and sunk into depression.

His oldest brothers, Frank and L.E., offered to pay for a six-month course at the Shenandoah Commercial Institute and School of Penmanship, mainly just to get Phillips’ mind off his dead twin. But that didn’t really happen until Phillips graduated and moved to Knoxville, where he began taking the banker’s daughter to local dances and socials.

But he didn’t stay long. Always restless, Phillips said good-bye to Veve and Knoxville in the spring of 1904 and went through several other jobs before coming to Indian Territory a couple of years later to work for his brothers in the oil fields near Bartlesville.

Of course, he met other girls. But Phillips never got over Veve. And her father, while still dismissing Phillips as “a young upstart,” eventually relented.

The wedding took place in the Elliott family’s living room March 30, 1909. Then Phillips brought his bride back to Oklahoma.

Their first child, Helen Jane, was born in 1911, with a son, Elliot Waite, following in 1918.

After several years of working for his brothers, Phillips bought his first oil leases in 1914. And a decade later, he sold his first company to Wall Street investors for $25 million, some of which he spent building the palatial Philbrook Mansion that he would later donate to the city of Tulsa to use as an art museum.

The windfall proved to be good timing for Veve’s side of the family. Crop prices were plummeting in 1925 and so many farmers defaulted on mortgages that the First National Bank of Knoxville, Iowa, found itself on the verge of bankruptcy.

Phillips, the “farm boy” and “young upstart,” sent his father-in-law a check for $800,000 to keep the bank afloat.

“I always knew he had it in him,” Elliott told people.

Sources: Archives of the Tulsa World and The New York Times.

Michael Overall


Twitter: @MichaelOverall2