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A Point of View

"A blind man can have such a full life," says Yale Huffman. Photo: Tim Ryan

There are those who see the glass as half empty, and those who see it as half full.

Yale Huffman, JD ’60, is a different sort of person entirely. His cup brims over, and he maintains that perspective despite the fact that he can’t really see the vessel at all.

Huffman, 89, is blind. He lost most of his eyesight 16 years ago but, just as he’s refused to acquiesce to old age, he hasn’t let darkness slow him down.

“Life is elastic,” he says. “You have to bounce.”

Making adjustments

Yale Huffman is the very definition of resilience. “Tribulation” is just another big word to him, and, as someone who defies pity, he has devoted most of his adult life to helping others move beyond their own sorrows and limitations.

Huffman has macular degeneration, a disease that destroys sight-sensing cells in the retina, causing debilitating loss of central or detail vision. He still has some peripheral vision, though it’s hazy and distorted, but most of what he sees is simply blotted out.

“Senile macular degeneration is now known as age-related macular degeneration,” he notes with a straight face that cracks into a wide grin. “But, I still call myself a senile macular degenerate.”

Huffman first noticed a problem with his eyesight at 73, when, during regular games of racquetball with his late wife, Jane, he began missing the ball. The disease progressed rapidly.

“The first thing you lose is the ability to read a book,” says Huffman, a voracious reader. “That was difficult.” He also had to give up golf. “A macular degenerate can’t keep his eye on the ball,” Huffman says with a chuckle that doesn’t quite hide the fact that he misses the sport.

The ability to drive goes next, then the ability to watch T.V. (The latter, he says, wasn’t much of a loss.)

The most significant loss, Huffman says, was no longer seeing faces. He could remember the faces of his loved ones, so losing sight of them wasn’t nearly as traumatic as missing out on seeing new friends and acquaintances.

“For me,” Huffman says tenderly, “Jane always remains 70 years old.”

Blindness would be a curse for most, but for Huffman, it’s been something of an opportunity. It has given him another way to do what he does best: help people.

George Adian is one of the beneficiaries of Huffman’s eternal optimism. A friend of Huffman’s for the past 20 years, Adian, 70, was diagnosed with macular degeneration just six years ago and now is legally blind in both eyes.

About Macular Degeneration

The leading cause of age-related blindness in the United States, macular degeneration is a disease that damages or destroys sight-sensing cells in the retina, causing debilitating loss of central or detail vision.

The retina is comprised of an array of photosensitive cells lining the back of the eye. Light striking these cells is transformed into electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain, which processes and interprets them. The highest concentration of these cells, including those responsible for color and detail vision, are found in the retina’s center, the macula.

According to the Macular Degeneration Foundation, the disease affects more than 12 million people. One in six Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 develop the disease; macular degeneration strikes one in three Americans over 75.

For more information about blindness and resources for the blind, visit the National Federation of the Blind online at or call 410-659-9314. For more information about macular degeneration, visit, or

Adian chuckles as he recalls Huffman’s advice: “‘George, it’s not all bad. There are some good things about macular degeneration. You can get a tax break next year, and you’re eligible for handicapped parking.’

“With macular degeneration, it’s very easy to get depressed,” Adian adds. “When I’m feeling down, I get on the phone and call Yale Huffman. He can snap me out of it in a minute. He cheers me up to no end.”

Despite his cheer, there are still things that Huffman misses desperately, like the panoramic alpine view from Trail Ridge Road.

Recently, he and his daughter headed into the mountains and spread Jane’s ashes into a high-country stream. “As the ashes spilled out,” he recalls, “my daughter said they looked like fragments of mica, glittering then spreading out into their journey.

“God, I missed seeing that.”

With blindness came insight

Huffman’s sense of loss is tempered by optimism. “The most precious blessing of blindness is insight,” he says. “I came to discover that self pity would get me nowhere. If I was to deal with this impairment, I was going to have to work on it.”

And he has. Huffman is a sharp man with an autodidactic bent and a keen interest in almost everything. And for him, blindness has been another subject to learn and master.

Getting dressed each day was simple. “I’d been dressing myself for more than 70 years and tying a tie for at least 65,” says Huffman, who boasts that he can still tie a perfect Windsor knot. A housekeeper helps keep his clothes organized by color, as macular degeneration makes it hard detect hues.

Getting himself around town was a little more difficult. He had to learn to use Denver’s public transportation system, and if he can’t get somewhere by bus, he calls a friend or a taxi.

The fact that he still has some peripheral vision allows Huffman to move about fairly comfortably on foot, particularly in familiar locations. When he heads out for a walk — to the nearby supermarket, for instance — he takes along a heavy, brass-handled wooden walking stick rather than a traditional long, white cane. He painted the bottom two-thirds of the stick white, he says, “because I’m only two-thirds blind.”

Rather than helping him to find his way, the cane serves to warn motorists, Huffman notes, “not to run over the old blind man.”

Huffman has learned to use his phone’s speed dial to get the weather report or to have the New York Times read to him aloud. He has mastered the use of a lighted magnifying lens to do things like sign documents or pencil meetings onto his calendar, which is super-sized for easier viewing. He now gets his reading fix by listening to tapes, keeping his reading pile stacked with recorded books and magazines provided for free by the Library of Congress. He accesses other reading services via shortwave radio and also tunes in regularly to National Public Radio for news and classical music.

“We [the blind] are well informed and well entertained,” Huffman says with a hint defiance to those who would dare think otherwise. He regularly attends the symphony and other performing arts events, he notes, and this summer traveled to Santa Fe, N.M., with friends for a weekend of opera and chamber music.

Huffman even traveled to Vienna, Austria, two years ago for a 10-day music tour. “Because I’m blind, Vienna is my favorite spot,” he explains. “It’s the music capitol of the world.”

“I had so many interests in life and an appetite for all of the experiences in life that I was able to accommodate for the losses,” Huffman says. “I’m in such good humor about all of this because there is so much of me left.”

Overcoming demons

The resilient way that Huffman deals with blindness has a lot to do with his experience with another affliction: alcoholism.

Bourbon was his drink of choice. “It tastes awful, but it does wonders for the impaired ego,” says Huffman, who took his last drink 53 years ago. “Three ounces of bourbon can make a man feel more important.”

Drinking derailed his career and nearly cost him his family. “I hit bottom in 1951 in a two-dollar hotel room,” Huffman recalls. “I was out of a job, out of a family, out of friends, out of resources.” Huffman remembers sitting on a swaybacked bed, staring at a brick wall through a filthy window.

“That was the day I called for rescue and got it,” says Huffman, who has regularly attended a support group for alcoholics ever since.

The rest of Huffman’s story is a happy ending that took half a century.

He eventually reunited with his family and found employment as an office equipment salesman. And after seven years of sobriety, he started law school.

“Dean Johnson headed the law school in 1958,” Huffman remembers. “I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, but he let me in because of my credentials.” Those credentials included an earlier career in law enforcement, military service and a term representing Jefferson County in the Colorado House of Representatives.

Huffman graduated from DU in December of 1960 at age 45. “I think I was the last person admitted to the Bar without a bachelor’s degree,” he says.

Huffman served a year as an assistant U.S. attorney for Colorado before embarking in a solo family-law practice. He retired in 1986 at age 70. “That’s when the real harvest time began,” he says.

Nowhere near finished

“The way to have a happy old age,” Huffman posits, “is to prepare for it in mid life. Get a job or avocation — something to give you purpose after 65.” For him, that avocation was writing. He published more than 20 magazine articles about travel and public affairs; his last was just four years ago. Now he writes poetry, using a computer program that displays type on screen in large format and reads text aloud as he types.

He corresponds often with family and his many friends; a computer program reads e-mail messages to him. “There’s an entire e-world for the blind!” exclaims Huffman, who admits he’s still somewhat “computer illiterate” and must rely on sighted friends for computer help.

Huffman has remained actively involved in politics, serving as a precinct committeeman for the Democratic Party and attending caucuses. He speaks regularly at support group meetings and volunteers as a sponsor and mentor to other alcoholics. Huffman also is a benefactor of a local halfway house for recovering alcoholics.

“Since the age of 75,” he says, “most of my time and energy has been taken up with helping younger people to achieve and maintain sobriety.” Those people have formed the nucleus of Huffman’s circle of friends. Considering all Huffman has done for others, they don’t mind returning the favor by dropping off a ready-to-eat meal, giving Huffman a ride, fixing a computer bug or simply stopping by for a chat.

When Huffman is asked if he is satisfied with his life, he answers emphatically: “Oh, yes. Beyond that, I’m grateful.”

But, he adds, “Satisfaction is not a fair test, because I have more than enough. One friend would be precious to a man of 89 when all of his contemporaries have died. I’ve got a dozen. I live in modest luxury. Clothes, food and shelter would be enough.” Huffman has two children, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren. “None are in the hospital and none are in jail,” he says, noting that even though they all live more than 1,500 miles away, they visit often. “You can’t do much better than that,” he says.

“A blind man can have such a full life,” Huffman adds.


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