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Judy Phillips: Grateful for a life in the outdoors

January 20, 2009
By CAPERTON TISSOT, Special to the Enterprise

In the cheerful Phillips home, sun from large windows floods the room and warm greetings from Judy welcome visitors. Judy and Tom, both highly gifted artists, have been married for 33 pleasure-packed years. In their comfortable caretaker-home, cradled in the wilderness by Middle Saranac Lake, their lives reflect the kind of joy and wisdom that comes from living close to the land.

Judy grew up in a house just down the road from her present home. Her father is the well-known guide boat builder, Carl Hathaway. Both her parents were caretakers for the Loeb Camp on Upper Saranac Lake. Because her family lived far from the village, she and her sister Patty were brought up to be self-sufficient and enjoy the wild surroundings. "I'll take the woods," Judy said about choosing a location to live. In her youth, she and a few neighborhood friends, also caretakers' children, spent their carefree summer days swimming, exploring and boating. They felt a bit sorry for the Great Camp children who seemed to live overprotected lives.

As winter closed in and camp residents returned to the city, her parents lives would slow down a bit, but not Judy's. She was a zealous snowmobiler and loved racing on the lake, where despite flipping over a couple of times, she was the fastest rider.

Article Photos

Judy Phillips and her decorated doors
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)

Judy has always looked forward to new projects, each leading to the next. She was a teenager when her father taught her to cane seats for his guide boats, paying her five cents per hole. To this day, she and Tom continue to earn extra income by caning chairs, though for slightly more money than that. She brought the skills taught by her mother to various summer jobs held as a teenager: one at the Wawbeek's Deer Isle lodge, helping in the kitchen and preparing meals to be decorative and appealing; and another as housekeeper at the mainland Wawbeek Lodge. She commuted to and from work in her own small nine horsepower boat, but was casual about the gas supply, resulting in frequent lake rescues by her father.

On graduating from school, she found her soulmate in Tom. After marrying, they were hired as caretakers for Nomis, a 10, 000-acre hunting camp near the Massawepie scout camp in Childwold.

Judy's cooking was so appreciated that the guests asked her to write a cookbook. As a child, other than art class in school, the only art she had developed was "squiggling out of things I got in trouble for." Later, she found her calling when she decided to take a drawing course at North Country Community College and illustrate her cookbook, "Expanded Reflections and Collections." To cover the cost of printing, she made and sold illustrated notepaper. The book contains delightful essays as well as recipes, and has been widely sold in Adirondack bookstores.

After three years at Nomis, Tom and Judy moved on to new jobs because, as Tom put it, "You know it's time to leave when you feel possession of land which you don't own but are at odds with the way it is managed."

For the next four years, the couple worked as caretakers at the Wawbeek, owned by sisters Mrs. VanVoorhis and Mrs. Remington and later bought by St. Lawrence University. Their jobs were varied and interesting, such as escorting Sports Illustrated writers back and forth to the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

While still at the Wawbeek, Judy and her mother began baking pastries and making jellies, which were immensely popular items sold at craft shows and in stores such as Oscar's Hickory House in Warrensburg, which bought 10 cases a month. Judy always starts her projects as "just something fun to do." Eventually, however, those cooking and marketing trips became "too much like work," especially as Judy and Tom now had a daughter, Dove, born in 1976.

In 1983, the couple moved to their present location where Tom caretakes several area homes

and is well known for the beautifully-crafted, rustic furniture he has been building for 25 years. Judy and Tom live in an open-spaced house with water and woods views in all directions. "We just appreciate everything," says Judy, sitting in a wheelchair. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Dove was still young, Judy managed to stay mobile until her daughter finished high school. She enjoys many happy memories of their days together, such as the time they "watched fireflies over the river like little souls doing a fairy dance."

Wheelchair dependent for the last nine years, Judy nevertheless continues to be busy, enjoying full and blissful days.

"Life up here is quiet," she said. "I enjoy it. When away in the woods, you get to step back and see what people are like."

Through the years, other interests sprung up, some of which included glazing pottery (made by Dove and Tom in their basement studio), basket making, painting, wood-burning, and more recently, beading and jewelry. Tom has also worked with a variety of materials from stained glass to feathers. Their home, like a museum, is filled with a fascinating collection of all their artistry.

Judy started photography in the early years in order to market Tom's furniture. From there, she expanded into art photography, documenting objects and events (such as her father's ice harvest), freelancing for the Press Republican and creating black and white posters.

Extraordinarily creative, Judy finds ever new ways to express her appreciation of the beauty around her. No longer able to hold a camera, she now paints.

"It's like doing Zen: I take a deep breath, and then my hands relax which makes it easier to paint," she said.

In addition to their many projects, Tom and Judy especially delight in visits from their daughter Dove, an art therapist, her husband and their two wonderful grandchildren.

Judy's only regret is her inability to convince more businesses of the ease with which they could convert their buildings to be accessible to the disabled.

"Estimates are that 20 to 25 percent of the population has disability problems," Tom said.

He explains that because the disabled can't navigate about the community, we don't see them and are unaware how many there are.

For Tom and Judy, in their art as in everything else, they believe in "sharing the wealth," bringing warmth and delight to all who know them.

Based on an interview with Judy and Tom Phillips. Caperton Tissot can be reached at



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