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Rabbit Takes Flight

He’s been called the most popular man in the prairie, and now he’s flying high after 40 years on the ground. Ed “Rabbit” Phillips was honored by his longtime employer over the weekend by participating in the flyover at the Mississippi State football game Saturday.

Rabbit Phillips has been the most popular employee Coca-Cola has had in the Golden Triangle since he joined the company some 40 years ago. Ed Phillips, 63, grew up on a family farm near Artesia to which he credits his good work ethic.

“On the farm, you had to work. We farmed hay, cotton, even pecans. We had to work hard…real hard,” said Phillips. It was on that farm that Phillips earned the nickname that he is still known best by to this very day. Although Phillips claims he’s called Rabbit due to his blazing speed, he jokingly acknowledged the real story behind the moniker.
“They said I squirmed a lot- you know, when I was a baby. My aunt started calling me rabbit ‘cause I wouldn’t sit still. But, I usually just tell folks it’s ‘cause I run so fast. I guess the name just stuck,” Phillips said.

Phillips was a standout baseball player at Hunt before joining the Army in 1969. Phillips was sent to basic training at Fort Polk, La. before being shipped off to Vietnam a short time later. Phillips worked as a perimeter guard while on tour, standing watch at the edge of allied camps in case of enemy attack. Phillips recalled a sense of unease whenever he saw the enemy approach, “We weren’t allowed to just open fire on them if we saw ‘em. We actually had to radio in that we saw them coming before we could engage them. We had to stay at there all night long, but I made it back alive.”

Phillips said that he spent a good bit of time on the C-130 transport planes, getting moved in and around Vietnam. In what might have been a sign of things to come, Phillips recalled how far a dollar stretched when he was in Vietnam. He said he went to a local food stand once and gave them a dollar (in local currency) that a friend had given him. He remembered what a value he got for his money.

“I got two fruit drinks and a burger and still had change. I got a cold bottle of Coke then too,” Phillips said.

Phillips, who achieved the rank of E-4 in the Army, did his duty to his country and took the long flight home to Artesia, Mississippi, late in 1970 , not knowing at the time it would be his last time on an airplane for four decades.

Soon after he arrived stateside, he found work at the Columbus Coca-Cola bottling company. He credited George Hazard and Fred Beard with giving him the chance to begin the job that would eventually become his home for nearly half a century. Phillips began his career working in the bottling plant, but noted that over time he has done just about every job there is to do in the soft drink business, “I have bottled drinks, swept floors, mixed drinks, worked on machines and delivered. Everything they had for me to do, I’ve done it at one time or another,” Phillips said.
Phillips worked with Coca-Cola when bottled drinks were all they had to offer. He noted how drink sizes have been gradually increasing over the years, from the 16 oz bottles of the 1970’s to the 2 and 3 Liter jugs available today, “I used to drink a bunch of sodas, now I don’t drink too much. It’s too hard to drink when you’re working in the heat.”

The “coke man”, as he is known in several area stores, began working on fountain and vending machines within the first couple of years with Coke, and eventually became an expert on all of the company’s equipment. He remembered a funny tale of how his customers would try and keep up with the increasing prices in the early years, “I remember working on Dr. Lott’s machine at his office. It was a 6 cent machine he had, but then the drinks went up and he had to raise the price to 15 cents. Rather than get another machine, he just kept it at 6 cents and left a cup out for the other 9 cents…. on the honor system I suppose…it worked for him,” Phillips said.

Phillips said he has had a great 40+ years with Coke. He said he enjoys what he’s doing and doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. He said he know just about everything there is to know about the business, but went silent when asked if he knows the secret formula, “No, sir. They keep that thing locked up.”

Recently, Phillips said he received a call from his supervisor with a very simple question: “Rabbit, are you afraid of flying?” Phillips, not knowing what was coming his way, told his boss that he didn’t think he’d be, but it had been a long time since he’d been in the air. Soon after that call, Phillip’s employer, Clark Beverage Company, called him up to their main office.

“Robert Clark brought me in there and thanked me for all of my years of service and told me what a good job I was doing– I didn’t know what was up. Then he asked me if I wanted to fly in one of the planes at a Mississippi State football game. I jumped at the opportunity,” said Phillips.

Last Saturday, just before the Miss. State vs. South Alabama contest, Phillips arrived at the George Bryan Airport in Starkville two hours before kickoff to go on the ride of his life. Alongside his boss (and longtime friend) Steve Clark, Phillips was briefed by members of the Commemorative Air Force, a group of nearly 9000 men and women whose mission it is to preserve and protect the planes and history of the planes of the United States Armed Forces.

Jason King gathered Phillips and Clark on the tarmac and introduced them to the pilots that would be caring for them on their flight over the stadium. Pilots Dan Fordice, Stan Musick, Frank Kimmel and Jimmy Fordham told the eager guests what lay ahead for them on their flight in the World War II era AT-6 planes. Along for the ride with Phillips and Clark were Jay Murphy and his guest Cristy. ( I apologize that I forgot to get her last name on scene-CK)

Phillips was informed that he would be on the lead plane as the group went into the stadium in the traditional Finger 4 formation, otherwise known as the “missing man” formation. The planes were set to enter the stadium just as the “Star-Spangled Banner” was finishing during the pre-game activities.

Phillips said he was excited to be in the air again, and he felt safe with the pilots of the planes. Phillips had 2 of his sisters watching from the stands along with one of his grandchildren all the way from Georgia. Phillips said tha flying over the stadium at 1000 feet was one of the best experiences of his life,

“I flashed back to the days when I was coming home from Vietnam
…I thought, I’m out, I’m safe, I’m coming home
It reminded me that I was coming home from Vietnam
It’s been 41 years since I’ve flown at all, but it sure felt great!”

Phillips is also known around town as the in-stadium voice of the West Lowndes football team, where he has been announcing games for the last 26 years. Phillips was also featured on WCBI last year for his service to the school. He has been married for over 35 years to his lovely wife Linda, and he has three children: Tamara Taylor, Kirsten Walker and Vincent Morris. Rabbit also is a trustee at Prairie Hill Baptist Church and has been active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars since 1986. He also added that he has always been a fan of The Packet.

“I don’t mind being in there…not at all — just as long as it’s not on the back page,” Phillips said.

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