Joni Phillips and Her Love Affair With DePaul
Jan. 21, 2011
(Last in a series of stories that ran from Sunday to Friday portraying the six inductees going into the DePaul Athletic Hall of Fame)
The Joni Phillips story is one that makes you feel good about the world we live in.
It’s a rags-to-riches tale straight out of the Horatio Alger genre in which a unique combination of spunk, tenacity and a kindness for others transforms a South Side kid from the Back of the Yards into the owner of a multi-million dollar business.
After coming into this world with just enough to get by, Phillips is now wealthy in a way that goes well beyond dollars and cents.
And best of all, like the Frank Sinatra song, she became a huge success by doing it “my way.”
Rather than climb the traditional corporate ladder, Phillips used a personal touch and a genuine concern for others in building an extensive business network.
At the center of her universe is the compassion of a nurse and a love affair with DePaul University.
This will all come to light on Sunday when the 1982 DePaul graduate is inducted into the DePaul Athletic Hall of Fame as the recipient of the Dr. Robert Hamilton Special Service Award.
Phillips is the most generous benefactor of DePaul athletics in the history of the school.
Because of her generosity, the athletic director’s suite of offices in the Sullivan Athletic Center is named after her. The balcony in McGrath Arena is named after her parents. The arena itself is being renamed McGrath-Phillips Arena.
She has purchased commemorative rings for DePaul teams who have won conference championships or competed in the NCAA tournament. She helped refurbish the locker rooms at Allstate Arena and has contributed to endowed scholarships.
“I appreciate what DePaul did for me,” said Phillips, who worked three jobs and attended night classes while earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing. “What I found at DePaul that was different from anyplace else in my travels is the university welcomes people from all socioeconomic levels---like a family.
“I give back because I just love DePaul. Everywhere I go, it’s DePaul. It has brought me so many memories and friendships. Every spare dime I have, I try to send it to DePaul. I don’t need much.
“When I’m gone, DePaul deserves it. They’re my family. I’ve named DePaul in my living trust.”
Getting a college education was a long shot for the eight children in Roman and Josephine Nowakowski’s blue-collar family. Phillips began saving for her college education by delivering newspapers when she was 10 years old.
Throughout high school and college, she did secretarial work for the Bienenfeld Glass Company in the Stockyards area. She became an RN after two years at Morton Junior College and applied for the nursing program at DePaul to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“There is one spot left in the program, and why should we pick you?” said the dean of the program during an interview that included other administrators.
“Because I’m going to make you proud someday,” was Phillips’ response.
“They were kind of stunned by my answer. The next day, I was accepted.”
After graduating from Illinois Benedictine College in 1988 with a master’s degree in business administration, Phillips flourished working for a large temporary-staffing healthcare agency.
After getting turned down for a raise, she drove to Springfield and got her business license on Jan. 23, 1990---exactly 21 years before the Hall of Fame induction.
She rented office space and showed up for her first day with a shopping bag containing pens, notebooks and a plug-in phone.
Welcome to PRW Healthcare Services.
“For the next two weeks, I sat on the floor and made phone calls,” Phillips said. “I placed a small ad in the newspaper that read:
RNs,LPNs, nursing assistants needed. Call Joni.
The first day of the ad, there were more than 100 phone calls. Many of the nurses and healthcare personnel had worked with Phillips at various hospitals. She had given rides to others or come out and fixed their flat tires.
Phillips would borrow her boyfriend’s van and drive nurses to their shifts. On the return trip, she’d bring home nurses getting off their shifts.
“People really appreciate stuff like that,” Phillips said. “I found out it all comes back to you.”
When her former employer found out about the thriving new business, it filed a lawsuit claiming Phillips had violated a non-compete agreement. She and her attorney, Dan Mathless, took on a slew of corporate lawyers and won.
“At the end of the second day of trial, the judge had heard enough and ruled in our favor,” Phillips said. “He told the opposing attorneys: ‘Let her pursue her dream.’”
That dream is now NovaStaff Healthcare Services in Oak Brook, a nurse-owned and operated company of nearly 300 providing nursing and healthcare professionals to healthcare organizations in the Chicago area.
“I’m so grateful DePaul has given me the opportunity to go to school, and it has propelled me to building a successful business,” said Phillips, who regularly attends Blue Demon men’s and women’s basketball games, soccer and tennis matches, softball games and track and field events.
“I would love for people to attend tennis matches and watch their amazing school spirit cheering each other on when there’s nobody there to root for them. I can’t tell you how much it inspires me.
“I hope my story encourages other people to give back to DePaul.”