Long-time VU official dead at age 63
As members of the Knox County Development Corp. Friday morning wrapped up their regular monthly meeting, their moods, once celebratory as they spoke of growth and opportunity, dampened.
One by one, pockets vibrated, phones buzzed, and the faces who looked upon them grew weary.
Phil Rath, a fellow board member, comrade and mentor to many, had died following a long battle with cancer.
“It will be hard, it's tough,” said KCDC president Kent Utt, his voice trailing. “It was amazing, the amount of influence that guy had. He was hard-nosed, gave 110 percent to everything. He got things done.
“Now, we're all going to have to step up and work together to do the things he always accomplished.”
VU officials early Friday morning confirmed Rath's passing at the age of 63. He began his career at the university as controller in 1983 then later advanced to the role of vice-president of finance and government relations, a post he's held for nearly 20 years.
His influence among state legislators was legendary, securing millions over the years for the advancement of both Vincennes University and the city itself. He oversaw the construction of major facilities and expansions, including the Van Eaton/Indiana Center for Applied Technology, the Jefferson Union Student Center, the Updike Hall and a $2.5 million renovation of Kimmell Park.
Only recently, he paved the way for a $15 million student housing development to begin this fall, one dubbed the French Village, and he was able to secure another $2 million for ongoing, imperative repairs to the Wabash River levee.
His influence and accomplishment, VU president Chuck Johnson said, is everywhere on campus.
“He did so many things people weren't even aware of,” Johnson said, adding that Rath had a “driving passion” for the university. “He was instrumental in so much of what VU did and accomplished over the last 20-30 years. There is a void now that won't be filled.
“We have to look on,” he said. “We'll all benefit from the things he started and put into place. But we will miss him.”
Former VU president Dick Helton had an office across the hall from Rath's for 11 years. His vision for VU, Helton said, was a “grand” one, and he called it a privilege to help him implement it for so long.
“He just always saw the grander vision for what was to come,” Helton said. “It was a rare ability. He developed strong relationships with legislators, on both sides of the aisle, and I think the reason for that was that he was always honest with them. They knew that when he shared information, he was telling the truth. And once you develop that kind of credibility, it's a plus for your institution.
“From VU's side, the institution will miss that.”
Long-time friend and colleague Brent Stuckey, an attorney at HartBell LLC, 513 Main St., called Rath's unassuming personality as among his best traits.
“Phil was soft-spoken,” Stucky said. “He didn't want to bring attention to himself, not for anything he was trying to do for the good of the university or the community. He didn't care who got the credit, he just cared about advancing his ideas for the community and for the university.”
But there was more to Rath, his friends say, than the tenacious way he was able to pursue his vision for VU.
“He was a wonderful dad, too” Stuckey said, his voice breaking. “He coached my kids and he was just so kind, so gentle and loving. I think a lot of people probably didn't see that.
“My kids loved him to death,” Stuckey said. “And not just my kids, all of the Rath kids' friends. They loved him.”
Utt remembers fondly reaching out to Rath for advice as a young banker in 1988. He helped him to establish connections, important business relationships he values to this day.
“He was a silent mentor for me on the way to get things done,” Utt said. “He was remarkable in his hard-headedness and toughness.
“It's going to take so many people to accomplish everything he did on his own,” Utt said. “He had so much influence over so many people and so many things.”
Ed Cummings, another friend and attorney at HartBell LLC, has worked alongside Rath for the last several years, helping him to pursue his endeavors as the university's legal counsel. Only recently, he stood beside him as Rath sought — and received — permission from the city's Historic Review Board to raze nearly four square blocks of often unsightly homes to make way for the French Village.
But Cummings, like so many, valued Rath's friendship over his assiduousness.
“He was a contestable basketball player,” Cummings said, his voice warm with the memory of playing alongside him for so many years. “And he was one of those people who just got better as he got older. Often people are the best they'll ever be in the eighth grade or in high school. But that didn't include Phil. He just kept getting better and better.”
Cummings, too, said Rath's ability to bring his visions to life was unmatchable.
“And they were visions that extended beyond just one day or one year,” Cummings said. “He had a vision for the future. He was always thinking about what was in the best, long-term interest of VU.
“If Phil got going on something, he kept going until it was done. If you didn't agree with him, well, you might not like that tenacity very much,” Cummings said with a laugh. “But when that tenacity was on your side, you liked it a lot.”
Rath is survived by his wife, Marianne and their children, Mitch, Todd and Jennifer. He also had eight grandchildren.