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Race Car Enthusiast Vows To Forever Keep His Spirit Alive

The town of Ahwahnee, California is just twenty-five miles from the entrance of Yosemite National Park, covers an area of just 10 square miles and is home to roughly 2,246 residents.

Ahwahnee is a close-knit, small mountain resort community that is part of the Sierra mountain range. The town is protected by tall, towering trees and people that all know each other, have grown up together, work together and play together. Parents who have children here are lucky enough to watch their grown children start families of their own and usually live just down the block!

Jimmy Phillips lived in Ahwahnee and watched his children grow and have children of their own. He rooted himself in the small town, working hard for his family, sometimes holding two jobs. He never hesitated to help out a friend or neighbor. He remained friends with buddies from high school. His family and others in the community did not live by the number of personal possessions, but by a code that each should provide for themselves and commune with nature.

It was at the age of fourteen that Jimmy earned his first paycheck. He was in the eighth grade. It was 1967 and he went to work doing odd jobs for a family friend. He learned how to perform regular maintenance on large vehicles used in the logging business. Over the next few years he worked for a residential trash-hauling service and worked at several local service stations, all before he graduated high school.

Charity and Jimmy Phillips
Jimmy graduated from Mariposa County High School in 1971 and for the next 39 years, he worked in construction, building maintenance and plumbing. Whatever Jimmy learned on the job, he never hesitated to share with his friends and neighbors, often performing handy-man jobs for free. Jimmy will proudly state, “I have never had a repairman in my house, I fix everything. And if anything is wrong at my kid’s home, I fix that too.”

He met Charity in 1970 and they were married in 1972. Young love...he was 19 years old and she was 18 years old when they said "I do!". Together they never backed down from the hardships and challenges they faced over the years.

Their life together graced them with three natural children, and two adopted children. They also share the love of 14 grandchildren. The Phillips brood remained faithful to Jimmy’s code and work ethic. They all live within minutes of Jimmy and Charity.

Stay in the house and watch television? Not Jimmy. He took great pride in landscaping the property around the home where he and Charity reside, which is at the end of a tree-lined road. He built a long beautiful retaining wall around his home, jack hammering each rock to their perfect size. Jimmy did all of the work, including lifting and placing of the rocks and heavy railroad ties.

He kept a stack of firewood always at the ready, cutting and splitting it himself. Jimmy proudly displays the six-plus foot cuts of tree-trunk which remain of a large tree that he felled on the property. Jimmy cut up the tree and split all of the wood with an ax, rendering over 18 cords of wood.

But his true love, his favorite hobby was working lawnmowers, go-carts, tractors, cars and “anything that needed to be fixed.” His large workshop contained all the tools that have provided his livelihood over the last four decades. One of his greatest enjoyments was building go-carts with his grandchildren.

Jimmy's shop
He passed all of his mechanical knowledge off to his son Michael and James and to all of his grandsons. All of his children have enough plumbing knowledge to never have to call a plumber!

While a teenager, Jimmy and his buddies first began taking an interest in hot-rods. He and Charity participated in drag races on the weekends at the 'Quarter Mile', an unofficial dragstrip in Mount Bullion. The races took place at night, in order to see any oncoming headlights from unwelcome spectators, if you know what I mean.

Jimmy raced his 1966 Chevelle, which also served as the family car. Jimmy estimated that he had owned over 76 cars and trucks in his life. Greesemonkey, shade-tree mechanic, drag racer – he was no Speed Racer, he was all Jimmy Phillips.

In 2010, Jimmy’s life began to ‘tap the brakes’. He first began experiencing an unusual lack of energy and shortness of breath. In the fall of 2011, he had caught a flu but he felt he never really recovered from it. He continued to feel tired and sickly but ignored all the symptoms and kept on working. The shortness of breath had become worse, he had developed chest pain and was losing weight. He could hide the discomfort from his family, but not the weight loss.

So, in January 2012, his family really began to notice his weight loss. On the birthday of his daughter Kourtni he secretly gave her a birthday card. Jimmy had not worked in a while and did not think he could afford the card but bought it anyway. When he told Kourtni the card was all he could afford, Kourtni told him, "All I want for my birthday is for you to go to the doctor." Jimmy went on to tell Kourtni he could not afford to see the doctor, she told him as a birthday present, she would pay for the visit. Jimmy agreed and knew that "it was bad."

Retaining wall Jimmy chipped, jackhammerd, and installed by hand
Kourtni immediately contacted the medical office where she worked as a Certified Nurse Assistant, Certified Medical Coder. Jimmy was seen by a general practitioner in Oakhurst, California. Chest x-rays and CT scans were taken which revealed multiple pleural-based lesions and extensive left-sided pleural thickening. The films also revealed a questionable mass.

When Jimmy saw the films, he knew something was wrong. “I saw that I had a growth in there. Uh oh. I told myself I just have to learn to deal with it as it comes, you know. I mean, you can't change it. You just got to fix it or at least repair it. I got lucky it was only one lung.”

Just like Jimmy to see the positive in all things negative. And even more like Jimmy, to see something broken and get right on trying to fix it. He went on to say, “When I have an obstacle in front of me, you've got to figure out a way to handle it. Either go over it, around it, or whatever. There's no hiding from it.”

Jimmy was then referred to a thoracic surgeon who performed a lung tissue biopsy on February 21, 2012 at St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, California. The pathology returned a suspicion of mesothelioma but to be sure, Jimmy then underwent an open lung biopsy on March 6 which confirmed the diagnosis of epithelial mesothelioma.

After carefully reviewing his medical records, Dr. Shamsuddin Khwaja at St. Agnes determined Jimmy was a good candidate for the extra-pleural pneumonectomy (EPP) surgery. On March 27, Jimmy underwent the EPP.

After spending over a week in the hospital, Jimmy completed his recovery at home. Jimmy was always a very happy, jovial person who did not like to dwell on pain or discomfort. He never complained about any post-surgical pain. When he did talk about concerns and worries, it was about returning to work to pay the bills and that at the age of 58, with his entire life ahead of him, he had to adjust to living on only one lung.

Jimmy walking his daughter Jaycee down the aisle in November of 2012
He admitted that his diagnosis and surgery was especially hard on Charity and the entire family. He told himself he would do everything he could to fix himself, for his family. “It was really hard on my wife, my children and my nieces and nephews and mother. That's the reason I had to pull through this, so they could relax."

He worried whether he will be able to do all the things he loved...including getting his hands dirty and greasy again. He soon began radiation treatments. After his third week of treatment, he developed an infection and was admitted to St. Agnes. He was placed in a chemical-induced coma for 17 days. He spent 79 days in the hospital – mostly confined to his bed.

When he was finally discharged, Jimmy had a feeding tube inserted into his stomach, a trachea tube that has been plugged the day before and a bag attached to his left side to collect fluid accumulation in his lung cavity.

Jimmy slowly got stronger, but never to the level he was before he was diagnosed, “I haven't turned a wrench in a year. And, it has been nearly a year the last time I pulled a transmission.”

His most important goal was to not just attend, but walk his daughter Jaycee down the aisle in November. Every day he woke up to the same goal. Although the trip to Lake Tahoe was taxing, Jimmy was as proud as any father to put his arm out and guide Jaycee to the altar.

In May of 2012, Jimmy and Charity filed a lawsuit in Alameda County, California against the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products he was exposed to.

In the fall of 2012, he withstood over 30 hours of deposition testimony that lasted over 30 days.

The defendants then successfully had the lawsuit transferred to Fresno, California. As the trial date approached, Jimmy’s health turned for the worse. On February 17, 2013, Jimmy passed away. The original trial date was then rescheduled for 2014.

The Phillips family has chosen to work through their loss by banding together to help others in their battle against cancer. As Jimmy always did, when he sees something that needs to be fixed, you fix it. What better way to fix (ie, find a cure) for mesothelioma than to get the word out.

Grampy's Angels!
So, in April of 2013, Kourtni coordinated the team 'Grampy's Angels' to participate in the 'Relay for Life'. Kourtni, Charity, other family members, as well as many family friends walked for 24 hours around a local high school track. Their goal was to raise money for the American Cancer Society. In addition to participating in the walk, Kourtni constructed a booth along the track and dedicated the booth to Mesothelioma Awareness. Grampy's Angels raised $6,800.

On May 24 of this year, Kourtni organized the 1st Annual “Jimmy’s Golf Tournament” in Mariposa, California. The tournament was an incredible success. A small army of friends and family helped raise over $12,000, half of which was donated to support mesothelioma research at the Pacific Meso Center in Los Angeles, California. The other half will be distributed to local families battling cancer and towards a college scholarship for a local high school student.

According to Clare Cameron, Executive Director of The Pacific Meso Center, " Kourtni's enthusiasm, spirit and creative skill sets, are qualities so ideally suited to raising funds for this orphan disease. Kourtni is a natural at this and we are honored to be recipients of her dedication and hard work."

The week after the golf tournament, a jury in Fresno returned a verdict in favor of the Phillips family. The first ever mesothelioma trial in Fresno. “This was a win for Jimmy,” added Charity “It was a long, hard journey and it is bittersweet but it was something Jimmy always said we had to do.”

*** Posted on June 4, 2014 ***