Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Side Streets: A fond farewell to Gazette reporter Dave Philipps

By Bill Vogrin Updated: June 18, 2014 at 10:52 am

Today, just two months after we gave Dave Philipps a champagne toast in the newsroom to celebrate winning the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, we are honoring him again.

It's his last day at The Gazette.

He is leaving us to join the New York Times, where he'll start on Monday.

I applaud Dave, 36, for reaching what I consider the pinnacle destination in our profession. He deserves it as much as any reporter I've ever known. And in my 20 years at The Gazette, I've seen some good ones.

Dave is proof of what I used to tell prospective reporters when I was hiring as city editor.

The Gazette is a place where you can do great work because it has an atmosphere that encourages reporters to think big. This attitude has produced two Pulitzer Prizes, national military writing awards, national religion writing honors and prestigious prizes for photos and design and our Lifestyle and Sports sections. I'm confident there will be more accolades in our future.

But today we bid farewell to Dave, who bounced into our old newsroom on South Prospect Street in 2002 as a brash intern ready to show us old-timers how this journalism thing is done.

I didn't know it at the time but Dave grew up here, on the campus of the Fountain Valley School where his late father, Glenn, taught history for years.

His mother, Peggy, still lives in Colorado Springs after retiring as an elementary school teacher.

He arrived at The Gazette after stints doing construction work (he's skinny as a two-by-four!) and as a ski bum, er ski instructor.

"I can get down the hill OK," Dave said modestly.

His first day should have been an omen ... it was the day the Hayman fire erupted near Lake George. He came armed with an environmental studies degree from Middlebury College in Vermont and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York.

It was immediately obvious he was confident in his abilities and unafraid to push boundaries.

"I just wanted to write," Dave said. "Journalism is a way to engage people and connect with people. It's not an academic practice."

By the time his summer internship was over, Dave felt ready to jump right in as a full-time employee.

But he had to wait for an opening about six months later when we hired him as an outdoors writer specializing in hiking, skiing and other fun pursuits.

"It was a dream job," he said. "They were going to pay me to have fun in the Rockies."

Dave threw himself into the job.

"I wanted it to appear to readers like it was totally awesome, which it was," Dave said, laughing.

I remember resenting this skinny kid who we paid to play.

Then I started hating him when he became our food critic. (It wasn't enough he specialized in recreation, we had to feed him too?)

But I couldn't ignore his talent. His early writing taught me about hiking and biking and camping and skiing with thoroughly researched stories that always included entertaining turns of phrase.

And soon he was revealing his appreciation for the history of The Gazette, of Colorado Springs and, of course, founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer. How could I dislike someone who shared my passions?

He loves to cite the trivia of The Gazette.

"The Gazette building was the first school, and the first firehouse and the first two-story building in the city," Dave said, repeating one of his favorite sayings. "And we're the oldest surviving non-taxpayer funded institution in the city. That's really cool. We get up each morning and have to figure out how to keep the lights on."

I wondered where he got his love of history.

"My dad was a history teacher," he said. "We spent every summer in an orange Volkswagen bus touring history sites."

Then he started producing cartoons to tell stories. I began looking forward to see how Dave would surprise me next.

The biggest surprise would come in 2009 when Dave dove into an investigation of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, among returning combat troops at Fort Carson.

In just about any newsroom it would be an audacious move for a skiing writer/food critic to grab a hard news story. But Dave didn't care.

He'd been watching the headlines we were churning out about soldiers coming back from combat tours only to wreak havoc at home in a series of violent crimes and murders. Hanging out with his wife, Amanda, whom he met in college and was a public defender, and her friends, Dave gained a different perspective on the soldiers and their crimes and, with the encouragement of his editor, Joanna Bean, he started digging.

"I felt there was a real need to explain what was going on," Dave told me. "We needed to take a step back and consider the bigger forces at work. We owed it to these guys, who are the kernel of why this community exists. These soldiers."

His research produced The Gazette "Casualties of War" series that uncovered PTSD and traumatic brain injuries among our troops. The series was a runner-up in Pulitzer voting in 2010. He later wrote the book "Lethal Warriors" based on his stories.

Dave was not a one-hit wonder.

Remember his stories about the bogus psychiatrist?

Or his expos?about wild horses being rounded up and shipped to Mexican slaughterhouses despite promises from federal officials they would not be harmed?

Or his investigation of Colorado Springs Utilities' investment of millions in ratepayer money in unproven scrubber technology?

And I haven't even mentioned how Dave persuaded sources to talk on the record about El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa and produce hundreds of sexually charged emails he is accused of sending to women he supervises.

And I think he could have won many awards for his reporting last fall that uncovered a secret snitch squad among cadets at the Air Force Academy.

Of course, the biggest prize came in April for the three-day series "Other than Honorable," which examined how wounded combat veterans were being discharged from the Army and stripped of benefits for offenses likely caused by their war injuries.

His stories reveal a reporter who is fearless and dedicated to standing up to those in power on behalf of the helpless. Exactly what the best reporters, editors and newspapers should be. It's what The Gazette has been doing during my 20 years.

He's also a fun guy to hang out with at lunch or after work. I'm going to miss him.

But I have hope that maybe we haven't seen the last of Dave.

Deep down I harbor a feeling that Dave, Amanda - a graduate of the University of Colorado law school - and their kids might be back someday.

After all, Dave's a hometown boy.

And his beloved Gen. Palmer is here. Always will be. And we all know how much Dave loves the founder of Colorado Springs. He can't just leave Gen. Palmer behind forever, can he?

"I will miss Gen. Palmer deeply," Dave said.

Heck, Dave came back twice already. Remember, he left for college. Then he left The Gazette in 2011 for a journalism fellowship at CU in Boulder. But he returned in October 2012 and picked up where he'd left off.

But for now, I'm just wishing him the best as he heads to Gotham City and the Times, which counts among its prestigious ranks ex-Gazette journalists including sports writer Lynn Zinser, sports copy editors Greg McElvain and Melissa Hoppert and 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning sports writer John Branch.

I'm proud of all of them. Like Dave, they are really great people. And I miss them all.

So good luck, Dave. I know you'll kick some butt.

As a parting gift, he bestowed on me his local history book collection.

Thanks, Dave. I appreciate it. I'll mine it for columns. And I'll take good care of it so it will be around for years.

Until you return.


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