Love After 80: Jean Ashford and Joe Phillips

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson September 15, 2017 21:17

Joe Phillips and Jean Ashford

Falling in love can happen at any age, and it often involves interesting twists and turns. Just ask Jean Ashford.

Ashford is 83 and the man she loves is 84. They first met as children and until last year hadn’t seen each other in more than half a century.

Jean first met Joe Phillips in 1940, when she was 6 and he was 7.

“I thought he was a puny little runt,” Jean says today from her home in Sonora. “My family lived across the street, and his sister was in my class at school. But I never paid much attention to him.”

That street was in a diverse Redwood City neighborhood where Hispanics, blacks, Asians and a few Caucasians all played together. By high school, two grades separated them, and though Ashford paid him little heed, Phillips harbored a crush on her the entire time.

“Yes, I had the hots for her, but she was already spoken for,” Phillips says.

The year after he graduated from high school, Joe would return in the afternoons to walk Jean from school to her bus stop. Ashford hardly remembers this. By that time, desperate to escape a difficult home life, Jean was engaged to someone else – and she married him a year before graduating.

From that point, Jean and Joe’s lives took different paths. When Joe called her in February 2016, the two hadn’t seen each other in 53 years.

“When I picked up the phone, I said to myself, ‘What the hell is he calling me for?’ ” Jean laughs.

Born in the South, Ashford and her parents left Mississippi when she was 18 months old and settled in the San Joaquin Valley town of Tulare. When World War II started, her father moved the family to Redwood City to work in the San Francisco shipyards.

He contracted tuberculosis in the moist Bay Area climate and died in 1942, leaving behind his 28-year-old widow with five young children. Jean, 9, was the oldest.

“TB had a leper-like stigma in those days,” Jean says. “We had all been exposed.”

Jean, her mother and three of her four siblings spent time recovering in a Redwood City sanitarium. Then Jean weathered a bout with polio and a life-threatening case of tuberculous peritonitis – a disease of the abdominal lining. It was so serious that Jean’s surgeon told her mother to make funeral arrangements.

Although Jean lost a year in school, she not only recovered but was elected president of her sophomore class. But her relationship with her mother was strained at best. To escape, she married a tall, shy man from her church choir named Kermit.

Joe Phillips? He was merely the boy who walked her to the bus.

“I married Kermit, and I loved him in a way,” Ashford says today, “but I wasn’t in love with him. He rescued me from a bad situation, and for that I was grateful.”

That marriage lasted 12 years, and a second one lasted seven. “That was a disaster,” Ashford admits. “Willard was divorced, and his children needed my help. I stayed as long as I did for them, but I didn’t love Willard. We were just good friends.”

Meanwhile, Jean did clerical work with the NAACP and was a manuscript typist for Hewlett Packard. Later, she taught business skills to job-seekers through a San Francisco City College program.

About the time of her first wedding, Joe Phillips joined the Air Force and spent nearly 24 years as an aviation mechanic and propeller specialist. He was stationed in Germany during the Korean War and spent 18 months in Vietnam during the 1960s.

Twice while home on leave, Joe saw Jean. In 1952, he tagged along with two friends to Jean’s first wedding, and 11 years later, he and his father stopped by Jean and Kermit’s home to say hello.

After leaving the Air Force, Joe earned two business degrees and worked for Lockheed and for the IRS before starting his own tax preparation business. He too has been married twice, a short first marriage, and a rich second one to Ruby, with whom he shared 51 years and two children. They made their home in San Jose, where Ruby died of breast cancer in 2015.

So how did Joe come to call Jean last year?

“Out of the blue, a friend of my sister’s gave me Jean’s phone number about 10 years ago,” Phillips explains. “I called her up, and we spoke briefly.

“Then a few months after my wife died, another guy and I were on the phone talking about people from the old neighborhood. When the name of Jean’s cousin came up, we weren’t certain where he lived or if he was even alive.

I told him I knew someone who could tell us. I called Jean.”

“Joe’s daughter lives in Sacramento,” Ashford says, “and on the phone he suggested we meet for lunch in Jackson, about halfway between her house and Sonora.”

Jean and Joe enjoy the view together

A reunion 53 years in the making took place at Jackson Rancheria Casino. It was noisy and loud, Jean recalls, but the company was wonderful.

“I was immediately surprised and amazed,” she says. “He was dashing and a gentleman. We spent four or five hours that first day just talking, and then made plans for him to come to my house in Sonora for a visit.”

“Next he sent me flowers for my birthday,” she adds. Then came the dinner date at the Sonora home she bought in 1977, and after that a visit to his house in San Jose.

“When he came to my home that first time, we sat up talking until 1 or 1:30,” Jean says. “Neither of my husbands had talked, and Joe loves talking. I mean talking, talking, talking. Our first four dates were just getting to know each other again.”

Soon the two were spending every weekend together, either in Sonora or San Jose.

“Jean and Joe are madly in love,” says Maryly Wallof, 98 and a member with Jean of the Mother Lode Weavers and Spinners Guild. “We all know that.”

Do Jean and Joe know that? “Yes,” Jean whispers, and smiles very much like a woman in love for the first time.

What makes him special?

“Well he’s not 4-foot-7 and 73 pounds anymore,” she laughs.

“No, seriously, he not only talks but he listens. He is kind, gentle and loving – he’s a feminist’s dream because he doesn’t see a separation between women’s work and men’s work. He’s just a basic good guy.

“And,” she adds, “he thinks I’m damn near perfect.”

“Yes,” Joe says, “she’s everything I thought she was growing up.”

What surprises the two about late-in-life romance?

“I never thought it would happen,” says Jean.

“I’m surprised about how well we get along,” Joe says. “We just really enjoy being around each other. And I’m probably more patient now. At my age, you have to be more patient.”

The pair is together at least 20 days each month, and when apart, they talk on the phone three or four times a day. Their common interest in travel has twice taken them to Hawaii, and they’ve visited more than a half dozen national parks.

Phillips confesses to Jean, “My sisters, my grandmother and my father were very upset we never got married. And I had always wondered what would have happened if we had.”

“I never knew,” she says.

What does the future hold for two people who fall in love after 80?

“I’m sure we’ll be together until one of us dies,” Ashford says, a sentiment Phillips echoes.

For financial reasons, their future doesn’t necessarily include marriage. And both realize the relationship is young.

“I love my house and Sonora,” Jean says. “Joe has a lovely home in San Jose, but Ruby is still there. I’ve got to have a place for me.

“And I have to adjust to relying on a male,” she adds. “I’ve been a woman on my own forever. But now I don’t want to be a woman on my own. I’m in love with a man who loves me. And I feel safe. It’s different than anything I knew before.”

Both seem happy to have found each other at this point in their lives, content to be where they are, happy to share the days they can.

“It’s young yet,” Jean says. “Nothing is chiseled in stone. Right now I just want to enjoy.”

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson September 15, 2017 21:17
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