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David Bunsen Pharis

Obituary Condolences

David Bunsen Pharis Jan. 22, 1941 - Sept.6, 2008 David Pharis died of esophageal cancer at his home surrounded by his family's love on September 6, 2008; he was 67. Born in Belleville, Illinois and raised in Webster Groves, Missouri, he was the only child of Marjorie Steingoetter Pharis and W. E. Pharis. He graduated from Kenyon College in 1963 and received his MA in social casework from Case Western Reserve in 1965. He received an additional master's degree in community and regional planning from the University of Texas at Austin in 1978. He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Mary Evans Pharis; son, Christopher Eugene Pharis and wife Theresa Case; grandchildren, Elijah Casey Pharis and Josephine Francesca Pharis; son, Michael Jonathon Pharis and Shanna Howard; and many dear friends and admirers. David dedicated his entire professional life to protecting the most vulnerable among us. He and Mary were both social caseworkers in agencies serving adolescents when they met in Chicago. After they married, he became Assistant Superintendent at Jacksonville State Hospital in Illinois before moving to Texas, where he worked at Texas Department of Human Services while completing his second master's degree. From 1979 to 1981 he designed, directed and monitored evaluation studies of the NIMH Community Support Program for the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. This work led to the defining professional experience of his life when upon return to Texas he was selected by U.S. Federal Judge Barefoot Sanders to be the Federal Court Monitor in a famous class action lawsuit (R.A.J. vs. TDMHMR). The lawsuit sought to improve living conditions and treatment for patients in Texas' eight state psychiatric hospitals. David's work over 16 years led to the successful resolution of this complex case, earning him the respect of both sides. The case created new procedures and standards for evaluating the quality of care and safety of psychiatric patients, and a continuous quality improvement program. This pivotal lawsuit ended in October 1997 but its effect is still felt today. The procedures and standards developed in the case have now been adopted by a number of other states that endorse the value of high quality psychiatric and medical care and protection of mentally ill patients. His efforts in the R.A.J. case improved the lives of mentally disabled people throughout the nation, few of whom he would ever meet. In 1999, Mr. Pharis published a book about this work, State Hospital Reform; Why Was It So Hard to Accomplish? David remained active in mental health and social services his entire life as a consultant to federal, state, and local agencies on mental health standards and quality improvement. For the federal government he evaluated the State Mental Health Block Grant Program. For Illinois he reviewed the care of all the adolescents placed in Texas treatment centers. He advised many attorneys as an expert on standards, policies and quality of care issues in forensic cases. In addition, he was an Advanced Clinical Practitioner in social work, offering individual, family, and marital counseling. Certified as a Registered Guardian by the National Guardianship Association, he also served as a geriatric care manager and as a professional guardian to many impaired individuals. As much as he loved his professional life, David loved Mary, Chris and Theresa, Elijah and Josephine, Mike and Shanna, and his friends of many years even more. As an only child whose parents, aunts, uncles and cousins all were gone, his family and friends were the true center of his world. He was his sons' greatest fan, savoring Chris's delight in being a father and his artistic abilities and writing skill, and Mike's academic honors, skills with electronics, tools and a fishing rod, and independent resourcefulness. Their deep love for him is testimony to his excellence as a father. He was an exceptionally principled, honest, sweet man; a skilled therapist and guardian who embodied the highest standards of his profession; an avid fisherman, traveler, and gardener; a phenomenal reader (averaging a book a week over the years); a great husband, father and friend; and a quietly extraordinary person. Those who had the good fortune to know him personally will miss him deeply. All are welcome to a memorial service at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, September 20th at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, 605 Robert E. Lee Road. Special thanks to Dr. Beth Hellerstedt, Else Tucker, Patti Watters, Pam, Jack, and Constance. David donated his body to the non-profit LifeLegacy Foundation for use in medical research and teaching. In lieu of flowers, he asked for contributions in his memory to People's Community Clinic; Capital Area Food Bank; Hospice-Austin or to the charity of your choice in his name, in honor of Dr. Beth Hellerstedt.
Published in Austin American-Statesman from Sept. 11 to Sept. 14, 2008
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