Obituary – William “Bill” Jacob Phelps

Published 12:17 pm Monday, December 4, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

William “Bill” Jacob Phelps, 91, passed away peacefully on Nov. 29.  Born on June 29, 1932, to loving parents Jacob Phelps and Mary Helen Foster, Bill spent his childhood on the family’s historic 1891 homestead in the Midway community of Butler County.  

The youngest of four children with fire-engine-red locks, he was loved and adored by his older siblings, but especially by his oldest sister, Clera Elizabeth, 15 years his senior. 

Life was not easy in the rural south in the midst of the Great Depression. Money was scarce, and work in the cotton and peanut fields was endless. After graduating from Greenville High School in 1950, Bill drove a school bus for a year before enlisting in the United States Air Force (USAF) in 1951. 

Email newsletter signup

In July 1951, Bill was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas for basic training. After basic training, he went to the University of Alabama for administrative training. The next assignment (1952-1953) was to Mitchel Air Force Base in Hempstead, New York, on Long Island, where he was a member of the Mitchel Bombers baseball team. The baseball game articles in the base newspaper, The Mitchel Beacon, referred to the slugger as “Red” Phelps. The team would often fly to games located on other air bases in Delaware, Maine, and even Bermuda, to name a few. 

Bill’s next stop was Narsarssuak, Greenland (1953-1954). While stationed at the air base, he purchased a Kodak Retina IIa 35mm camera that produced Kodachrome color slides. Though most photographs taken during that era were traditionally black and white, due to the rarity and high cost of color film, the slides he took give a glimpse of what life looked like in the 1950s, in vivid color. His interest and love of photography and technology would be lifelong.

His final stop in the USAF was to March AFB near Riverside, California (1954-55). He was honorably discharged in April 1955, three months early, to attend college. He began Troy State in the summer session, played varsity baseball, and graduated with a degree in Business Administration in May 1958. He was the first person in his family to attend college.

While at Troy, Bill met his lifelong sweetheart and Pike County native, Gailya Nunnelee. They were married on July 12, 1959, at Old Lebanon Baptist Church in Troy. That union lasted 64 years.

They began their married life in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, where Bill worked at Eglin AFB in civilian personnel. Bill’s 33-year Civil Service Administration career took them next to Huntsville, Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal, where he once met Wernher Von Braun. 

Atlanta was the next stop, where Terrell “Dean” was born in 1965. Jennifer Gailya was born in Memphis in 1967, and William Bradley “Brad” was born in 1972. The draw of being closer to both families led them back home to Alabama in 1974. They landed in Prattville, close to Bill’s job at Maxwell Air Force Base.

Bill retired in 1988, to enjoy life as a part-time farmer at his beloved home place in Butler County. At the end of his career, he was given an award for outstanding civilian career service. “He has consistently and continually demonstrated all the best qualities of a dedicated and productive career civil servant. He has served our country well and richly deserves official recognition as he closes out a paradigmatic career.”

In his retirement, beginning at age 55, his days were filled with overalls, bush-hogging, and tilling, instead of suits, ties, and paperwork. When he was no longer able to ride a tractor, he continued cutting the grass with a riding mower into his 90s.

He loved the game of baseball and especially the Atlanta Braves. He saw Hank Aaron Hit his 715th career home run to pass Babe Ruth as the top home run hitter in the history of baseball on April 8, 1974, in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Like the other members of his family, he was an avid reader. National Geographic, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Progressive Farmer and Consumer Reports all helped satisfy his quest for knowledge. He also loved to read the Bible and regularly checked out books from the library.

Bill was preceded in death by his wife, Gailya Nunnelee Phelps; parents, Mary Helen Foster and Jacob Phelps; sister, Clera Elizabeth Phelps; brother, Cecil Fred Phelps; sister, Mary Helen Phelps Branum; brother-in-law, Mack T. Branum; and nephew, Thomas Phelps Branum. He was also preceded in death by his mother- and father-in-law, Bernice Turner and Grady Snell Nunnelee. 

He is survived by his son, Terrell “Dean” Phelps (Catherine), daughter Jennifer Gailya Phelps Davis (Jason), son William “Brad” Bradley (Kelley), and seven grandchildren who called him “Papa.” Geneva “Eva” Nunnelee Phelps, Whitman “Whit” Phelps Davis, Emily Katherine Phelps, Mary Bradley Phelps, Elizabeth “Rivers” Davis, Charlotte “Lottie” McClain Phelps and bonus grandchild, Kacy Bush Cripple. 

He is also survived by his sister-in-law Ruth Scott Phelps, brother-in-law, John Newman Nunnelee (Barbara); several nieces and nephews who were dear to him, Timothy Mack Branum (Barbara), Candace Branum Armstrong, Michael Alan Phelps, Lisa Ruth Phelps Green (Jeff), Frederic Scott Phelps (Maggie), Gina Shay Nunnelee Nimmo (Troy) and John Matthew Nunnelee. He is also survived by several great nieces and nephews. 

A graveside service is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 4 at Sunrise Memorial Park, 3013 Mobile Road in Greenville, with Pastors Earl Wise and Jerry Hogwood officiating. Pallbearers are Mike Phelps, Mark and Jeffrey Tillery, Mike Kionka, Donald J. Claxton, and Frank Parsons. 

Contributions can be made in his honor to the Damascus Baptist Church Cemetery Fund.

For online condolences, please visit