Phyllis Tickle, Publishers Weekly’s founding religion editor, died September 22, 2015, at her home in Lucy, Tenn., four months after announcing her diagnosis of stage-4 inoperable lung cancer. She was 82.
Appointed PW’s first religion editor in 1991, Tickle was the author of more than 40 books—including nonfiction, memoirs, children’s books, and poetry—as well as a religion expert, media commentator, and speaker; publisher; consultant and board member for many presses; university professor; and mentor and friend to countless authors, publishing and religion professionals. During her tenure at PW, Tickle expanded and deepened the magazine’s coverage of the burgeoning religion category. In a PW's tribute in early 2015, former PW executive editor Daisy Maryles noted her stature with religion publishers: “We gained their respect right away because of Phyllis.”
News of Tickle’s death quickly filled the Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of authors, colleagues, and friends. Joseph Durepos, her longtime friend and literary agent, posted this on Facebook: “If a life can be measured not so much by the greatness one achieves, but rather the greatness one can touch, then I've had a pretty good run. Among the best I've had the privilege and grace to serve was Phyllis Tickle, as bright a star as burns in the firmament. After working as her literary agent for almost twenty years and a dozen books…all that's left to say is thank you, love you, and long may you shine.”
In an email, Jon Pott, former editorial director at Eerdmans Publishing, wrote, “She not only covered us in religious publishing--wonderfully well--but she also in many ways led us. I always paid attention to her comments on the religious scene and to the movements of her own writing. And in covering and leading us, she also knew and cared about us. We in the world of religious publishing have truly lost a friend.”
Trace Murphy, her former publisher at Doubleday Religion, now editorial director at Paulist Press, wrote: “Phyllis was the North Star of our industry—-an indispensable resource for us to know where we were and where we were headed. Professionally, there seemed to be no title, author, publisher that escaped her notice and she synthesized it all, recognizing fundamental realities and emerging trends that were difficult for us to appreciate from our individual perspectives. Personally, she was likewise the heart of our community--a joyful pursuer of wisdom who generously shared her time and knowledge with her colleagues.”
Kelly Hughes, principal of religion-specialist publicity firm DeChant-Hughes: “Phyllis Tickle was a beautiful soul who had the rare ability to make everyone she met feel as if they were incredibly dear to her, and that she couldn’t imagine anything more delightful than running into them. She had a generous spirit of friendship and collegiality. Patrick Alexander, director of Penn State University Press, observed:“That Phyllis touched so many lives should not be surprising to anyone who ever met her, even if only for a few minutes. She embodied grace, strength, and the ability to put into words what most of us only wish we could express.”
Jana Riess, author and former PW religion reviews editor, posted a eulogy on her blog and wrote in an email, “I am forever meeting people whose lives were touched by Phyllis--especially the many poets and writers she helped to get started in their careers. I will never forget her amazing laugh and sense of humor. She could always see the humor. I don’t mean that in a Pollyanna kind of way, like people who always see the sunny side because they’re purposely ignoring the darkness. I mean it in the kind of way that looks at the darkness and still finds the light to be more compelling."
And if I, Lynn Garrett, might take off my journalist’s hat for a moment…I had the privilege and the joy to work side by side with Phyllis at PW and to succeed her as religion editor (her idea, of course). Words cannot express all that she did for me and meant to me. I will miss her terribly.
A literary trust—composed of her agent and friend, Joseph Durepos; Jon M. Sweeney, another longtime friend who is currently researching and writing her biography; and Sam Tickle, Jr., her son--will oversee the future use of Tickle’s work. In lieu of flowers, it was her wish that contributions be made to the Phyllis A. Tickle Award in Poetry established in her honor by Paraclete Press.
Tickle is survived by daughters Nora Katherine Cannon, Mary Gammon Ballard, Laura Lee Palermo, and Rebecca Rutledge Tickle; sons John Crockett Tickle II and Samuel Milton Tickle Jr.; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her husband, Dr. Samuel M. Tickle Sr., and their son, Philip Wade Alexander Tickle.
Plans for a memorial service are pending.
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an error in Phyllis Tickle's age. She was 82 at the time of her death, not 81.