But after a decade of distinguished service, Philbrook's career was devastated in 1996 when a 17-year-old boy accused the middle-aged, openly gay librarian of sexually molesting him.
Reports of the allegations against Philbrook hit the newspapers. He was summarily fired from the library, and had to post $50,000 bail after his arrest on two felony counts of child molestation.
In no time, he went from honored librarian to disgraced social pariah.
What Philbrook would like people to know now is that he has been exonerated of all charges. But the 50-year-old librarian is finding out how difficult it is to reclaim your good name.
Throughout two years of legal wrangling and pretrial hearings, Philbrook always maintained his innocence. Even when prosecutors offered to let him plead guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge, Philbrook refused. He demanded a jury trial to prove his innocence.
Philbrook never got his trial, because the case never made it that far. Last summer, a superior court judge dismissed the charges against Philbrook for lack of evidence. Prosecutors were unable to make a case strong enough that Judge William Cahill would even allow it to go before a jury.
The dismissal last July cleared Philbrook of any wrongdoing, but vindication outside the court is proving harder to come by.
"I'm relieved, but I still feel violated," Philbrook says. Although the original allegations made headlines, neither daily newspaper has reported his exoneration in the eight months since the charges were dismissed.
More importantly, Philbrook would like to return to his job. "And I deserve a public apology from the library," he says. "I deserve justice."
But that doesn't appear likely. The library does not want him back.
Next month, a lawyer from the City Attorney's Office and a representative of Philbrook's union -- Service Employees International Union Local 790 -- will go before an independent arbitrator to argue whether he should be reinstated.
Despite the dismissed charges, library officials say their own investigation gives them pause in rehiring Philbrook, although they won't specify why. "The library's internal investigation had to do with other, complicated issues," says library spokesperson Marcia Schneider, who declined to elaborate further. "We wouldn't be in arbitration if there weren't differences between Mr. Philbrook's position and the library's."
Philbrook and his union maintain the library discriminated against him because he is gay by jumping the gun and firing him based on "innuendo, suppositions ... and fatally flawed bits and pieces of gossip." Philbrook likens his dismissal to a "witch hunt."
"They couldn't get me on my work, so they said, 'He's gay and works with children -- how obvious.' The library was exploiting stereotypes," Philbrook says. "I may be a middle-aged gay man, but I am not a pedophile. I am a middle-aged gay man who has been in a stable relationship for 12 years and I am a library professional."
Philbrook did fit a suspicious profile -- a man befriending and tutoring children at home, sometimes allowing them to spend the night -- says police investigator Patrick White, who checked out the allegations. "You see he's a very nice guy, but then you have suspicions. To me that's the tip," White says. "Behind closed doors, he can be someone else." But, White acknowledges, his interviews with numerous children Philbrook tutored unearthed no other charges of molestation.
Philbrook, and some fellow librarians, believe the molestation accusations provided the library a convenient way to get rid of him because he was openly critical of flaws in the library's plans to rebuild after the 1989 earthquake.
A petition drive organized by Philbrook garnered signatures from 33 staff members outlining their concerns that the celebrated architectural design for refurbishing the Main Library was not practical. His high-profile criticism, Philbrook argues, contributed to the library's decision to fire him.
"It sounds like a paranoid stretch, but there's too much fishy stuff about my case that doesn't make sense," Philbrook says. But library spokeswoman Schneider says Philbrook's dissension was not a factor in his termination.
"The library was taking responsible action in light of serious criminal allegations," Schneider says. "There were lots of librarians upset by the designs, and they still have their jobs. This had nothing to do with punishing a critic of the library."
But if criminal allegations were the sole basis for Philbrook's dismissal, they have since proven unsubstantiated. Philbrook's lawyers argued that the accusations came from a troubled teenager who had a pattern of lying to authorities at school and even the library, where he was employed shelving books part time. Judge Cahill, who would not comment on his decision, apparently bought those arguments and tossed the charges.
Besides tutoring youngsters, Philbrook ran a chess club for mostly immigrant children in the Tenderloin. There, he taught chess to a brother and sister of the teen who accused him of molestation, and Philbrook got to know the children's parents. When the father asked Philbrook to help his third child, who was having trouble in school, Philbrook was happy to oblige.
The boy was frustrated, and the father also asked Philbrook to help the teen work at controlling his temper. Philbrook taught the boy breathing techniques, which at one point included a shoulder massage to help him relax. "That's what turned into child molestation," Philbrook says.
What helped raise suspicion, however, was that the tutoring and relaxation massage did not take place at the library, but in Philbrook's home. Philbrook lost his tutoring room at the Main Library after the 1989 earthquake damaged part of the building. Philbrook lacked the space and quiet he needed to teach his kids. So he started taking them home.
The library knew about Philbrook's off-site tutoring sessions. "I could've been accused of this anywhere -- at home, in the park, or even at work -- so I think my poorest judgment was not in letting kids be tutored in my home, but in letting myself tutor someone with questionable character," Philbrook says. "This was a kid with the kind of troubles I would normally not get involved with."
Philbrook surmises the boy was jealous that other kids were considered "godchildren" by Philbrook and enjoyed a closer relationship, while he did not. Five fatherless children -- three boys and two girls -- had adopted Philbrook as their "godfather."
"No one mentions the girls," Philbrook says. "I helped boys and girls, but they try to make it look like I only helped boys."
Philbrook says he never considered the stereotypical suspicions that could arise from allowing minors into his home.
"I didn't think in terms of stereotypes, because they were something I consciously fought against my whole life," he says. "But now I won't let anyone in my house unless they're over 40."
Andrea Grimes, a fellow librarian and an officer in Philbrook's union, says she thinks Philbrook did use poor judgment in his eagerness to help the kids, which was, in turn, used against him.
"Perhaps it was a little foolish for John to have the students come to his house, but his department head knew about it and should have said, 'Let's find a place in the library,' " Grimes says. "I always saw how good John was with children, and if I thought something was going on, I would've said something."
After Philbrook was fired, Grimes and other librarians rallied around him, sending a petition to library management protesting his termination. "When we screamed bloody murder, we were told if we did anything, we would be disciplined. I feel it's a real betrayal of an institution that has long been a champion of free speech and human rights," Grimes says. "Yes, the library should take such allegations seriously and look at them carefully. But they went on trumped-up charges and a very biased investigation. Just because of some suspicion, they denounced a good man."
The library acknowledges that Philbrook's 11 years of employment were exemplary, topped by a Mayor's Award for public service.
"There's no question he was a gifted and talented children's librarian," says library spokesperson Schneider. "If there had been any previous allegations against him, I wouldn't know."
Of the hundreds of children Philbrook tutored over 11 years, the boy in the dismissed case is the only child to ever accuse Philbrook of molestation.
After being fired in July 1996, Philbrook did not work for more than a year as he fought the criminal charges, and tried to deal with the trauma and depression that followed. His partner supported him financially and emotionally. So did his friends, who helped secure Philbrook's $50,000 bail. Library staff began a legal defense fund and even took Philbrook out to group dinners once a month to keep his courage up.
For the past year, he has worked at a small, independent bookstore, earning one-third his previous library salary, without benefits.
"I'm beginning to cope, but it's very hard at the tender old age of 50 to start over," Philbrook says. "I miss my profession as a librarian."
The boy who leveled the charges against Philbrook, now an adult, still shelves books at the library -- a job Philbrook helped him get. With arbitration coming next month, Philbrook and his colleagues are optimistic he will prevail and return to the career he loves.
"I'm ready for more fighting," he says. "If I didn't have hope, I wouldn't have lived through this nightmare this long.