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  • Courtesy of Jean Phillips

    Jean Phillips and her husband, Roy, above, visited Yosemite on their honeymoon in 1948. Blind from birth, Phillips enjoyed the experience of sensing the valley's vast spaces, pine-scented trails and cooling waterfalls. Now 82 and a widow, Phillips – who gained sight in an operation at age 66 – saw Yosemite for the first time earlier this month on a trip organized by her senior living community in Elk Grove.

Elk Grove senior community gives once-blind resident her first look at Yosemite

Published: Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

Jean Phillips remembered the smell of the water, the feel of the spray on her skin, the coolness and vastness of Yosemite.

"I remember I felt the bigness of it," said Phillips, 82 and a resident of the Camden Springs Retirement Living community in Elk Grove.

"We went on hikes by streams and waterfalls, and I felt the mist. I remember the cold spray of a waterfall. Just smelling the water – people don't think of that, but it was so refreshing."

Phillips honeymooned at Yosemite in 1948 and visited it once or twice more while she and her husband, Roy, who died in 2009, were raising their family. But she never saw it for herself until earlier this month, when she and eight other Camden Springs residents toured the national park together.

She was born blind, with a hereditary condition that left her corneas opaque. Surgery in 1996, when she was 66, gave her full eyesight.

"The main point of the trip was for Miss Jean here," said Alicia Olson, the Camden Springs activities director who arranged the trip. "Our first stop was finding the picture from her honeymoon."

The "before" shot is faded and a little grainy, a memory from a life long ago. A pretty, dark-haired girl in dark glasses leans against her husband, a rangy blond man who squints at the camera. In the background is the majesty of Yosemite, the soaring peaks obscured by a heavy, early winter haze.

In a series of "after" shots, taken on Oct. 5, Phillips and groups of her Camden Springs friends pose at an overlook, smiling. She once again wears sunglasses – but only because it's a sunny day.

"I'd never been to Yosemite before I honeymooned there," she said. "I'd never been much of anyplace."

She was one of five children born to a coal miner and his wife in a small Oklahoma town. For seven years, until she was 14, she was educated at the state school for the blind.

"It was a different world for the blind then," said Phillips. "I was very shy. I felt like I was segregated from the world, actually. But I had friends at church. We always went to church."

And in 1946, the family moved to California – to Gustine, west of Merced. At church early in 1948, Jean Wells met Roy Phillips, a ranch hand.

"God sent him to me, I'm not kidding," she said. "He never made me feel handicapped. He never treated me that way. He'd never been around blind people, but he knew right away to put his arm out and let me take it.

"And off we went."

By the early 1950s, they moved to Fair Oaks. Jean Phillips raised their three children while her husband worked for a glass company. Later, she went back to school herself, earning her GED, then her associate's degree in music. She taught piano and voice lessons for many years, a guide dog by her side.

And then medical technology helped her see.

"When I opened my eyes, my husband had a real smile on his face," she said. "He looked apprehensive. He was a bit overwhelmed, like I was.

"I was 66, and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be fun to go back through life and do everything again?' "

But she and her husband never made it back to Yosemite together. Illness kept them away. He struggled with cancer for many years before his death.

"It meant so much to her to go back to Yosemite," said Olson. "It was one of her dreams."

As it turned out, Yosemite was what Jean Phillips remembered, and more.

"It absolutely took my breath away," Phillips said. "We got out of the bus, and I felt so humbled to see God's handiwork. It's still amazing to think about, those big rocks that felt so close.

"I had a lot of different feelings from the first time. I could see it, but my husband wasn't there with me."

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