Judith Whipple Oehler, who died Jan. 16 from complications of diabetes, was a sturdy, adventuresome woman who never let blindness slow her down or mute her energetic advocacy on behalf of the disabled.
Oehler, 61, sailed boats and climbed mountains even after diabetes took her sight at the age of 23, said her brother, Benjamin Oehler of Wayzata.
"She was quite fearless and brave. She was a gutsy person," her brother said.
Oehler, known as Judy to her friends and family, grew up in St. Paul where she learned the art of sailing from her father on White Bear Lake. She was a graduate of Summit School, Skidmore College and Boston University, where she earned a doctorate in psychiatric nursing.
She began losing her sight in 1969 and 1970 and went to a special school to learn the skills to help her cope with blindness, including braille, use of a cane and seeing-eye dogs.
"She went quickly from being a nurse to being blind to being trained and then to grad school and a career that taught medical professionals how to help people adapt to those loses such as hearing, sight, a limb," Benjamin Oehler said.
In a memoir currently being edited by her family, Oehl- er wrote of her year-long march toward blindness: "The blue cold of winter hit me during the snowy months of 1969-70. Wintertime -- all existence -- took on a different meaning. ... Suddenly, I was forced to face a different world, to confront vision loss and shadows of confusion. Eventually I would triumph over the unfamiliar world of blindness that began that winter, when the landmarks of my life, from cityscapes to ski slopes, became rough terrain."
But blindness did not conquer Oehler's spirit, her brother said. She became the first blind person to complete the sailing course at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Rockland, Maine. In 1981 she was one of 11 disabled mountain climbers to summit Mount Rainier, a feat that inspired the HBO-sponsored documentary, "To Climb a Mountain."
In addition to St. Paul and Minneapolis, Oehler lived in Boston and New York, where she loved visiting art galleries. Once, after she became blind, Oehler took some of her family on a tour of the Frick Collection in New York where she described the paintings from memory and attracted other gallery visitors who didn't know she was blind but hung on her descriptions.
"Then we came to a wall where a sign said 'painting removed for cleaning' and she described the one that was supposed to be there," brother Ben recalled.
Oehler earned her Ph.D. with research on the psycho-social reaction to blindness caused by diabetes. She believed that reaction to loss of a body function was similar to death and that there were phases of accepting the loss similar to the phases of accepting death.
"She was a very active, very alive person," he brother said.
A memorial service for Oehler will be at 1 p.m., Saturday at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul.
Oehler is survived by brothers Cole Oehler Jr. of Chicago, Benjamin Oehler of Wayzata, Peter Oehler of Onalaska, Wis., and sister Susan Oehler Seltzer of Edina and their spouses and families. She was preceded in death by parents Betty and Cole Oehler and sister Deborah Oehler Lynden.
David Phelps • 612-673-7269