Gene and Vera Phillips are soft-spoken, unassuming, and content to stay behind the scenes. So, when they heard they had been selected as the grand marshals for this year’s Raymond Parade, their initial inclination was to politely decline.
“We were very hesitant and not very enthused because we’re not good public speakers,” Vera said, “but when we found out we wouldn’t have to speak, we thought about it and what a great honor it was to be selected.”
Once the decision was made, the next hurdle for the modest couple was sharing their story.
The two met as teenagers when she was 14 and he was 19 through Gene’s cousins in Fairmead. They quickly fell in love, and Vera became a teen bride at 15 on March 8, 1964.
Life in Raymond
Vera dropped out of high school to raise her family in Southern California. After Gene was hired as a laborer for the Raymond Granite Company in 1973, the young couple relocated to Raymond. To this day, Gene continues working as an outside laborer, and it’s anyone’s guess as to when and if he plans on retiring.
Vera teases that with her “want” list, Gene, 73, needs to continue working, and it turns out that’s okay by him.
“My secret happiness is work,” Gene said. “I’ve heard about and known people who have retired and regretted it later. Then there’s the elderly who return to work because of lack of income, so why quit? Why retire?”
With the steady advances in technology over the decades, Gene has seen many changes in his workplace. Back in the day, he used a single head saw, jacked the table up by hand, leveled it and mentally calculated the measurements before cutting the granite slabs - a much slower process than today, where he simply punches numbers in a computer.
He’s run a wire saw, a grinder to shape stones, a diamond saw, and because he learns something new everyday, he said he’s never been bored over his 44 years of employment.
“Gene has been a great asset to this company,” said HR Safety Rocco Millard, who has worked with him for more than 17 years. “He’s always willing to help out, has a work ethic second to none, and is just a down-to-earth good guy.”
“It blows the minds of the younger hires that someone Gene’s age is still able to do the hard, physical work that the job entails,” Vera added. “When he first went to work at the granite company, he was paid $2.85 an hour and that’s what our family lived on.”
Vera was busy herself in earlier days, raising two boys, working as a special needs bus driver for the Madera County Office of Education (MCOE), and obtaining her GED in the 1980s. She didn’t stop there. With a desire to move on in her education, and even though it would take many years, Vera attended night classes at Fresno State, graduating with her liberal studies degree about 10 years later. She retired from MCOE in 2012 after 27 years, and at 67, continues to work as a substitute instructional assistant.
“We’re really not very exciting people,” Vera said. “Our favorite hang out is home, just putzing around.”
The two also enjoy traveling by Harley, which Gene purchased at the age of 67. He said he had always wanted one since he was a boy, but there were always other priorities. One day when he and Vera were in Fresno, she spontaneously said why don’t we take a look at some bikes. They not only looked but bought that day, and now, riding the Harley is a preferred pastime.
“We even pulled our bike to Sturges, South Dakota for a motorcycle meet ... and we rode around Yellowstone where I could have reached out and touch the bison,” Vera continued. “I wasn’t there for the birth or death of Jesus Christ, didn’t attend Woodstock, but I did make it to Sturges and that was exciting.”
Their sons, Daniel, now 52, and Michael, 51, are Yosemite High School graduates. Michael served as a marine in Desert Storm, and joined the National Guard, where he served in Afghanistan. He retired after 17 years of military service, recently returned to Raymond and just began work as a mechanic at Friant Dam.
Daniel served four years in the Navy in Northfork, Virginia as a corpsman, and just retired as a firefighter and paramedic.
“I’m so proud of the successes the boys have had in their lives, that they are responsible parents, are always willing to help out, and give back to their communities,” Vera said.
The Phillips also have three grown grandchildren, Michael Jr., in Clovis, Ryan in Oceanside, and Stephanie in Virginia.
“The secret to a long marriage is don’t give up,” Vera said. “We were married very young and we had some really rough years, but we hung in there, no matter what.”
Gene admitted that he fulfilled his lifelong dream with the purchase of his Harley, saying the bike, plus Vera, his family and work, is all he needs or wants.
“We like the slow pace and serenity of Raymond. We’re nestled in the Sierra, and the community pulls together when needed. We still have a small school, and progress here moves pretty slow,” and then pausing just a moment, Vera added with a laugh, “I really haven’t seen many changes in the community except us getting older.”
As parade day grows closer, Vera said they’re becoming less and less nervous. “Now that the newspaper interview and photos are over, we can sit back and look forward to the parade, to waving and tossing out candy to the children.”
Chuckling and with a sly grin, Gene added that a few pieces of that candy may covertly find their way into his pocket for later indulging. Given that he’s such an expert at delayed gratification, his power of resistance is high. After all, if he can wait 50-plus years for his Harley, he can certainly wait a few hours for those tempting, sugary sweets.
This year marks the 31st annual Raymond Parade, which will be held high noon on April 15 in downtown Raymond.
The Raymond Museum, which offers a view into the Sierra, Yosemite and area history, will be open during the day.
A raffle for prizes, including an item made of granite, will be held to benefit the Raymond Community Association Scholarship Fund. The raffle drawing takes place 4 p.m., at Hills Pride Inn in Knowles; winners need not be present to win.