5 Things You Should Know About L.E. Phillips

Tom Giffey

L.E. Phillips
L.E. Phillips


If you know the name of Eau Claire businessman L.E. Phillips, who died in 1978, it’s likely because you’ve seen it emblazoned on numerous local institutions, including Eau Claire’s public library (which just launched a fundraising campaign), the UW-Eau Claire science hall, a senior center, a Boy Scout camp, an addiction treatment center, and more. Phillips founded a charitable trust in 1942 that still donates millions annually to scores of causes.


Phillips’ generosity was an outgrowth of his entrepreneurial success. First through the family business, Ed Phillips and Sons, and then through his ownership and leadership of National Presto Industries, Lewis E. Phillips became one of Eau Claire’s most prominent business leaders. Presto, which is still based in Eau Claire, was previously known as the National Pressure Cooker Co. In addition to making kitchen appliances, the firm made ammunition in World War II.


Phillips was born Lithuania – then part of the Russian Empire – in 1899, to Edward and Rose Phillips. The following year, his father moved to the United States, where his family joined him in 1901. Ed Phillips and Sons was founded in 1912 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, as a wholesaler of candy, newspapers, and magazines. Under the leadership of Lewis’ brother, Jay, the family firm later became a liquor distributor and then a distiller that still exists in Minneapolis.


Anti-Jewish sentiment in Eastern Europe and discrimination in the U.S. made an impact on Phillips. When he established his charity, he intended it to help all people – especially young people – “regardless of race, creed, or color,” his son-in-law Melvin Cohen said in 1975. “He placed stress on youth largely because prejudice and bigotry occur in formative years and he felt little could be done to stop it once it is firmly impressed as an adult,” Cohen said. “Therefore, he firmly believes that the opportunity to stress the American creed and to make it work was in the formative years.”


Cohen succeed his father-in-law as CEO of Presto, and was himself followed by his daughter, Maryjo Cohen, who still leads the company. The Phillipses are related to two legendary advice columnists: Pauline Phillips (a.k.a. Dear Abby) was married to L.E.’s nephew, Morton, while Pauline’s twin sister, Esther Lederer, was known by the pen name Ann Landers. Both women lived in Eau Claire for a time in the mid-20th century.