Cathy Free
Diane Pearson, lunch supervisor for Club Vision, serves lasagna and garlic bread to blind clients three days a week.

SALT LAKE CITY — From “National Velvet” to the “National Enquirer,” there is little that Eileen Wood doesn’t appreciate hearing during thrice-weekly gatherings of Club Vision at the Andrew S. Rowan Reading Room for the Blind.

Years ago, one volunteer reader — the president of Utah’s Mutual UFO Network — even kept club patrons updated with the latest flying-saucer reports, recalls Eileen, who until then had little reason to wonder what space aliens must look like.

“The people who read to us open up our world — they make such a difference in our lives,” she says. “We feel like we’re with family here and we always go home feeling lucky.”

Eileen, 69, and her husband, Eugene, 70, both blind since birth, are among dozens of Salt Lake County visually-impaired people who are regularly treated to lunch, readings and entertainment in a tradition that dates back to 1908.

The reading room is one of the oldest continually operating organizations in Utah, says group president Christine Allred, and it began with just one client — the blind brother-in-law of Capt. Andrew Rowan, who was stationed at Fort Douglas.

“Captain Rowan’s wife, Josephine, organized some people to come and read to her brother,” says Allred, “and when other people found out about it, it just took off. The club has met in all kinds of different places over the years, but one thing has remained constant: it wouldn’t be here without volunteers.”

Hoping that others might be inspired to devote a few hours a week to transporting blind clients and giving short readings from novels and newspapers, Allred met me for a Free Lunch chat at Granato’s on Redwood Road, Club Vision’s new gathering spot every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

When a long run at the Murray Elks Club came to an end, deli owner and newly elected Salt Lake County councilman Sam Granato offered up his party room so the good times could continue.

“What’s not to love about Italian food three days a week?” says Jim Hefferon, 91, a regular guest who started losing his eyesight 20 years ago. Digging into a plateful of cheesy vegetable lasagna, the retired railroad worker laments that he can no longer read the large library of history books and biographies that pack the shelves of his Salt Lake City home.

“I always used to take a book with me on the railroad,” he says. “I sure do miss reading. Now that somebody else has to be my eyes, I appreciate being read to. And to get out of the house now and then helps break up the day, too.”

If not for the reading room, many blind seniors wouldn’t have a reason to venture out, says Allred, who helps organize Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for club clients. “Some of them have no family and wouldn’t get a holiday dinner if we didn’t put it on,” she says. “This gives them a social life.”

Others, like Eileen and Eugene Wood, regularly get around on the bus without any help and don’t mind the long trip to hear the latest news headlines and a few new jokes from Reader’s Digest.

A sense of humor comes in handy when you’ve spent a lifetime as a blind person, says Eileen, who notes that she met her husband on a blind date 45 years ago.

“The other day, we pushed the button for the elevator at the doctor’s office and we didn’t know there was more than one, so Eugene got on one elevator and I got on the other,” she says. “You just have to laugh. Dumb things like that are going to happen when you’re blind.”

Although nobody reads the UFO news these days, Eileen says she’s up for anything that volunteers care to dish out. Astrology forecasts, weather reports, romances — all are welcome, she says. “We’re not picky — we love it all,” she says. “Bad jokes and all — we’re good listeners.”

Anyone interested in volunteering as a driver or a reader can contact Susan Woolstenhulme at 801-262-3769.

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to [email protected]. Cathy Free has written her Free Lunch column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.