Al: I appreciate your willingness to share with my readers and me what makes you who
you are and where you are going. Let's
start with who is Judy Samuel and where you are from.
I was born Judy Gordon, and I'm from Beloit, Wisconsin. I grew up in a large family and was number six in a family of
six children; I was the baby. My
mother died when I was only eight. Then
my father remarried, and they had three more children. So, there were a total of nine children in our family.
My early years were spent in Beloit. When I look back on that
period of time, I can see that they were really very tough years. I was from a poor family.
I had no idea of how poor we were until I was in college. In one of my classes, we were talking about the median income.
My father's income was no where near the median. It was not even at the lower income level, but it was never something
that I grew up thinking about. We
were poor, but we were healthy, happy and a family that cared deeply about each
on a farm revolves around labor. My
job was to pick up the eggs and feed the chickens and ducks.
I could play on my free
time. My brothers and sisters had
their chores to do too. In the summer, I carried water when my older siblings were in
the field cutting cabbage, picking potatoes, or planting whatever.
My father worked with pigs among other chores.
His primary responsibility was keeping track of the genealogy and health
records for all of the pigs that they had on the farm.
I had fun playing with all the little animals.
My closest sister was four years older than I, and there were only one or
two children my age (within several miles) so it gave me a lot of time to be
alone. I'm very comfortable with
being alone. I would dream and make
life what I wanted it to be.
Al: So, you were the baby of the first family, and until the second family, you were
alone a lot.
Yes, and I was the oldest child of the second family which gave me a whole
different perspective on things. I
took over the role my oldest brother played in the first family. I took care of my little sisters. As a matter of fact, they often related to me more like
daughters than sisters, especially the oldest one.
I dragged her everywhere. She
was my doll. I would take her
wherever I was going and whatever I was doing, she would come along.
I still tend to be a bit over protective of my "little sisters."
What about your schooling?
Judy: I went to Beloit Memorial High School. I
was a good student and a member of the National Honor Society. For
many years, my family was the only black family in the schools that I attended
until junior and senior high school. Even
then, there were very few black students. It
is very interesting how we didn't really fit into the school structure,
although we thought we did at the time. I
wasn't really a part of a lot of the activities.
I wasn't in the band, but I did take orchestra.
Playing an instrument was important at home.
Even when it came to the National Honor Society, I don't remember going
to meetings. I just wasn't really
a part of the social scheme of the school.
Al: Being a minority left you alone a lot.
I can see why you adjusted to being alone in the first family and in
school. Tell me about your mother.
What caused her early death?
We never knew the real reason, although we suspect that it was a stroke.
She had been ill for a period of time-headaches, but that was about it.
About the time she was getting ready to go to Madison to be admitted to
the University of Wisconsin Hospital for tests, she died.
It was Labor Day Weekend. I
remember her death clearly. It was
sort of the end of my world. My
mother was very inspirational and very creative.
My father was a hard-working man. Whatever
he did, he did 100%. He labored on
the farm literally from sunrise to sunset, came home, ate, and went to bed.
My mother was the one who had visions of our going to school.
I don't remember a time when I didn't think that I was going to go to college.
She was creative in the sense that there were always flowers planted
around the house. She made
everything we wore and canned everything we ate.
I still have visions of all these canned goods arrayed in the
kitchen-all those vegetables and fruits.
It was beautiful. What you
ate in the fall and winter was what you collected during the summer.
She would store it in whatever fashion (dried, canned, and smoked) in the
fall. I remember that she even
canned chicken and dumplings! She
canned everything that could be canned. In
the spring, she would plant such a beautiful garden. She was very creative and very much for her children.
Today, she would probably be considered the mother from hell, because she
was also an outspoken advocate for her children, making sure that they
got whatever was due them. I
remember her saving egg money to pay for piano lessons for my oldest sister. That is how I learned to play the violin.
My sister taught me to play both the piano and the violin. Eventually,
I took music lessons at school. It
was that sort of thing, that balance, that my mother provided and that was so
essential to our family. When she
died, all of that was gone. It was
really the end. I don't remember
a lot of the years after that until my sisters came along.
That did lighten things up again. In
between my mother's death and the birth
of my little sister, it was very difficult.
Al: Did you have a problem adjusting to your stepmother?
Absolutely. She was very different
from my mother. She was a very
young woman--four years older than my oldest brother.
She came into this family with all these children.
Wow! She was a good
church-going southern woman, not terribly learned, and didn't like sewing,
cooking, and all of that. Poor
thing, she was dropped into a family with six children who resented her. It wasn't until college that I gained a whole different
understanding about her. It was so
uplifting, because my resentment faded. I
studied sociology and psychology and began to understand why I felt the way I
did. I was so sorry for how I had
responded to her and have spent my adult life making up for it.
You realize that your response was a normal response of any child, don't you?
Oh yes, but I can't do enough for her now.
Besides, she is still there for my father who is now 88.
Al: Do they still live in Beloit?
No, they live in Madison. Four of
my sisters are in Madison, the three little ones, and one of my older sisters.
We moved my parents from Beloit to Madison so they could be close to
them. It is funny how life plays out.
If he hadn't had the second, he would not have had his primary
caretaker-my younger sister. My
father is a very proud and stubborn man. But
he is very comfortable letting my younger sister take control so we funnel
everything through her. We respect
this relationship and frequently talk about what a lifesaver she has been for
all of us. The family works
together to make sure that they are living a comfortable life and have no
financial worries. It is really
wonderful how life works out. However,
my father is in the hospital now.
How critical is his condition?
He has stomach problems and has had surgery to remove part of his intestine.
Ever since that, he has had scar tissue that continues to grow back so it
has to be redone. It has been
redone two times. This could be the
third time. The doctors are hopeful
it can be resolved with medication and diet.
My father is getting to the end of the road in terms of tolerance for
surgery, doctors, and hospitals. He
says that he is tired of all this. He
tells me that he has had a good life, he tried to do his best, and he doesn't
feel like going through this anymore.
You can understand where he is coming from.
Another couple of months of suffering so that he can live another year of
suffering. It's a shame that he
has to go through all this.
It surprises us that he's become a real worrier in his later years.
He worries about money and why I don't know.
We are not going to let anything happen to him, yet he worries about
He spent his whole life doing just that.
Yes, that's probably it.
Al: Judy, tell me about where you went to college.
I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
It is a wonderful and beautiful state university.
I didn't get enough scholarship money to take me through school, so my
Father and I went up there to see what we could do.
I remember my father driving me to Madison in some little old car.
We went to a University loan office to see if we could get a loan.
It wasn't long before I met Ruth Doyle who helped students get
financial assistance. It turns out
that she was a very prominent woman and told my dad and me about the whole world
of financial aid. She also told me
about a professor friend whose children were leaving to attend school out of
state. Everything was coming together. I ended-up
staying with Professor Willard Hurst and his wife, Fran.
With their children gone, their house was empty, and they just wanted
someone there. She said that I
could help with dishes or something, but they just would like to have a young
person around. For the first time
in my entire life, I had my own room. It
You had made it.
I sure had. It was like being in
tall cotton. With the loan,
everything worked out. I marvel to
this day at how easy it all seemed. It
never occurred to me that it wouldn't work out.
College threw me for a real loop. It
was a whole different world for me. The
classes were huge and impersonal. If
you made it fine, if you didn't that's fine also.
Al: You're just a number.
Yes, you're just a number, and you're on your own.
I loved it. I loved the
atmosphere and all the new things that I learned. I was so na?ve. My
world so small that I never realized there were so many different people.
My world had been either white people or black people.
All of a sudden, there were people from numerous ethnic groups and other
parts of the world. What's this
What years were you in college?
I was in college between 1964-68-a time of a lot of national trouble.
Race and Viet Nam were big. At
that point, I wasn't a joiner. I
didn't join many organizations. That
attitude was a carry over from the days of McCarthyism.
My father told me not join groups and to be aware of what I put my name
on. I had an aversion to putting my name on anything.
I didn't want to be known as a part of anything.
I don't know if that was good or bad now that I look back on it.
It wasn't until much later that I finally got active in organizations.
College was an exciting time. Then
to top it all off, one of my sisters moved to San Francisco.
During the summer, I would visit with her.
For a kid from Beloit, that must have been a whole New World out there.
Oh, my god! I spent a lot of
time in Haight Ashbury and even had contact with the Black Panther party.
I worked for a project that was sponsored by the Stone Foundation. I don't know how, but I ended up doing interviews with
people about violence. The
organization wanted to interview people from all walks of life.
I interviewed prostitutes, hippies, and just plain people in Haight
Ashbury. For a kid out of Beloit,
Wisconsin, this was like being in Disneyland.
I couldn't believe people thought so differently and how the system or
their life situation had tied them down.
was a New World. I cut off all my
hair and wore it natural. I
remember coming back to Wisconsin and my father picking me up at the airport and
wondering who in the hell I was and why I had cut off my hair. He thought that I was so radical. Of course, I wasn't that radical, but I had opinions now
that I never had before.
Al: After college, what did you do?
I needed a job now that I was out of school.
My whole family is steeped in the notion that you have to work and make
money. You can't be poor ever
again. That was the first thing on
my mind-I had to get a job. I
came to Chicago. I heard about the
Model Cities program. I managed to
get an interview with Erwin France who was the head of this program.
I came to Chicago for the interview during the Democratic Convention.
Police, soldiers, and tanks lined the streets along Michigan Avenue and
Grant Park. I'll never forget how
it felt and how it looked. There
were tanks in the street. The
soldiers looked at you as if you were the enemy.
So frightening. I never felt
anything like that before nor since.
The world was coming apart.
I think that you're correct. That's
how it felt. We all owe a great
debt to Dr. Martin Luther King and the leadership within the black and white
churches. Had it not been for him
and his insistence that we must always have God in our battle for equality, I
don't think that our society would have made it.
I remember when I was in graduate school in Pittsburgh thinking that America
wouldn't make it into the 70s. JFK,
Bobby Kennedy, Medger Evers, and Martin Luther King all died from assassination.
America was unraveling at its very seam.
I know, I thought that the world was really coming to an end too.
Al: It was a strange time for an interview.
It was sheer madness. I had my
interview with Erwin France in his limousine while he was driven to a meeting.
That was my first ride in a limousine.
After the interview, he said, "Well nice talking to you.
I'll get in touch." And
here I was on the south side of Chicago with no idea where I was or how I was
going to get back to the Greyhound Bus station.
I remember hitchhiking back downtown.
In the process, I learned a lot about the city.
A nice man picked me up and lectured me about hitchhiking. He told me about the bus system and the elevated trains.
I guess I looked like I was from Beloit.
got the job with the Model Cities Program.
That was another high point of my life.
I had never worked with or even seen so many black professionals in one
place. It was a blessing for me to
work with them. I learned so much
about the city, the neighborhoods, and myself.
I worked in neighborhoods on the near northside (Uptown), the near
southside (47th and Drexel) and midsouth (63rd and
Woodlawn). I worked with community
organizations and learned a lot about them.
The Model Cities Program encouraged community residents to identify and
prioritize their problems and specify the programs that they wanted to
implement. I came into contact with a lot of angry people who didn't trust or believe anyone
anymore. We worked so hard.
We were at meetings every night and then when we would get together
during the day and put the proposals together.
We were idealistic and young. We
couldn't have received that learning from textbooks.
Model Cities co-workers were among the smartest people I have ever known.
I have had a chance now to work with CEO's and a lot of people who are
presumably brilliant. These people were brilliant and committed.
Al: Where did you go next?
I wanted to work for a small business. I
joined a black-consulting firm in 1973. After
a couple of years, I wanted to try a large corporation.
I literally walked in the doors of CNA, filled out an application, and
talked with a recruiter who happened to like what I had to say.
I was at the right place at the right time with the right person.
I was hired by CNA and learned what corporate life was like.
I took advantage of every opportunity to learn something new.
Insurance isn't a business that has historically drawn blacks, and it
isn't talked about in the schools. It
was a big mystery, which I wanted to understand.
CNA was a great learning opportunity for me.
Judy, thank you for letting me take some pictures of you in your office.
You have decorated it very nicely. I
especially like the picture of the horses.
Do you really like it? I don't
know why it appeals to me, but I love the painting.
It's autobiographical; it pictures your personality. The horses are the way you view life. It isn't surprising that you like it!
Well, I never saw that in the picture. Perhaps
you're right. I'll have to
think about that. Thanks for
pointing it out to me.
What is in your future as you charge through life?
I don't know, but I do love new challenges.
My current job in human resources has been rewarding and ever-changing. Whatever
I do next will also be related to people. I
have learned so much from people, and I'm always wondering how they were
shaped by their experiences. My
husband and I are trying to figure out how to wrap our next career stage around
the things we love--people, art, gardening, and cooking (he's the cook).
Al: What will God say when you die and go to heaven?
"You did good. You did good.
You weren't sitting up there in the pews singing in the choir, but you
What advice would you give to those who follow you?
If you listen to people, you might learn something.
Some people are so anxious to get their ideas out that they can't hear
what others have to say. If you
make people feel comfortable, they will reveal so much knowledge.
Be a good listener.