In memoriam: Beloved volunteer, Phyllis Rose, dies at 89

Phyllis Rose shows off one of FFRF’s T-shirts for sale. (Photo by Brent Nicastro)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is very sad to report the death of FFRF Lifetime member, Board member and longtime volunteer Phyllis Rose, 89, in a hospice in Miami, on April 17, two weeks after sustaining a head injury. Phyllis had been very frail for several years.

Née Phyllis Woloshin, she was born on Feb. 8, 1932, in Chicago, to a family of Jewish-Russian immigrants. Her older sister, Connie Sutton, had predeceased her, as had her husband Robert Kimbrough (see accompanying obituary). They were married for more than 40 years. Her two sons are Nathan Rose, Florida, and Danny Rose, Indiana. She earned a B.A. in sociology, then a Master’s in library science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She reminisced that when she first attended the UW, she was barred from a coveted women’s dormitory because she was Jewish. A feminist, she formally shed her birth and married names and changed her last name to Rose in the early 1980s. 

“Phyllis loved the progressive atmosphere of Madison,” her two sons recalled in her formal obituary. “She was a mentor to young women, encouraging them to be fearless in the pursuit of their life goals. She loved lunching with friends, sitting with a book on her back porch, and attending plays at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wis., with her husband.”

“Phyllis was an unpaid staff member and confidante,” recalls her friend Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Phyllis enveloped us and our office and staff with warmth and support, and added so much to our lives intellectually and socially.”

She was also a workhorse. Beginning around 2001, after she retired as a library administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she began volunteering one afternoon a week at Freethought Hall, FFRF’s office in Madison. Soon she started coming in three afternoons a week.

Phyllis proofread Freethought Today and did endless “posting,” updating FFRF membership cards before FFRF took that online. She also helped judge countless student essay competitions. She served on the board of the Freedom From Religion Foundation as secretary for many years. She also served on the board and was a longtime volunteer and donor to the Women’s Medical Fund, a volunteer abortion fund administered by Anne Gaylor, FFRF’s principal founder.

Phyllis would be known to FFRF members who regularly attended FFRF’s national conventions from 2001 until about 2013. She helped register convention-goers and staffed sales tables. In the run-up to conventions, when FFRF had a much smaller staff, Phyllis often volunteered full days assembling and proofing registration materials.

In a “Meet a Volunteer” column featuring Phyllis in the March 2010 Freethought Today, she wrote that she volunteered at FFRF because “I can’t think of a better organization that works to protect fundamental human and societal values in a nation in which far too many people don’t care about separation of church and state. I believe that religion plays a devastating role in governmental affairs.”

She praised the work atmosphere “with dedicated staff who work hard and harmoniously and have a lot of fun doing it. And we are fueled by a constant supply of ‘sweets’ and tea.” Asked about “things I smite,” she responded: “Hypocrisy and theocracy and idiocracy.”

Politically engaged, Phyllis was an aficionado of journalist Amy Goodman, and stalwart supporter of The Progressive magazine, where she also volunteered. Thanks to her encouragement, FFRF began tabling at Bobfest, a regional fall event named for Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob LaFollette,” a founder of the Progressive Party (and nonbeliever). 

Amit Pal, FFRF’s communications director, had worked with Phyllis at The Progressive. “We were always amazed as to how seamlessly she managed to integrate her strong political opinions with her warm and charming personality,” he said.

Annie Laurie noted that Phyllis was “an Audrey Hepburn type, who looked effortlessly chic, her silver bob perfectly coifed, beaming her big, welcoming smile.” Phyllis will be missed and remembered for her wit, intelligence, indefatigable spirit, and defense of underdogs everywhere. Former staff member Katie Daniel, one of the young women befriended by Phyllis, remembers her as a “one-of-a-kind awesome woman.”

Her family encouraged contributions to the organizations she supported: FFRF, The Progressive and Planned Parenthood.