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Judy Stone Named 2017 History Makers Honoree

Judy Stone

Judy Stone was born in Columbus, Ohio on July 21, 1932. After growing up in Ohio, Judy received her bachelor’s degree in English from DePauw University and attended Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston to continue her studies. It was in Evanston that Judy met her husband Jerry, who was working on his PhD. Judy received her MA in history from ISU in 1972.

After starting a family and spending two years in Switzerland for Jerry’s research, Judy and Jerry returned to the United States. In 1964, Jerry was invited to teach in the religion department at Illinois Wesleyan University, so the family relocated to Bloomington.

Judy and Jerry were both heavily involved in the First Presbyterian Church, which is where Judy forged many of the connections that aided her activism in the community. It was through the First Presbyterian Church that Judy helped coordinate the relocation of Vietnamese refugees to Bloomington-Normal in the mid-1970s. It didn’t always go exactly as planned; for example, the first family they sponsored included four more people than they were expecting. Still, that family flourished here but, like many refugees from a warm climate, they eventually moved, relocating to California. The father started a dry cleaning business, sent his two brothers to college and eventually purchased a house. Judy has visited the family in California many times and is happy to see that all of them are doing well.

Judy’s interest in helping people internationally extended beyond sponsoring Vietnamese refugees. She doesn’t remember where she heard about Amnesty International, but in 1980 she was moved to start a local chapter. After contacting the Chicago office to get guidance on how to start a local chapter, she began recruiting members. “It was never a large group,” she said, “but we wrote letters faithfully, we had meetings, and we learned about the countries that had imprisoned the people we were writing for.”

The group might have been small, but success kept their spirits buoyant. “We actually had some enormous successes, Judy recalled. “Our first prisoner was Chang Fu-chung from Taiwan which, in the 1980s, was not the democracy it is today. After Mr. Chang was freed he came to Bloomington-Normal to visit us. He came to our house and we still have the gift he brought us. We also wrote on behalf of a Russian Jew [Isaak Rubinov] who was imprisoned in Russia. He was freed and allowed to join his family in Israel. Successes like that really kept the group going.”

Judy’s involvement in Amnesty International took a backseat after she and a friend established a group called International Wives (today known as International Women due to the number of unmarried women who sought membership in the group.). Judy and her friend, Norma Ashbrook, found themselves sympathetic to the loneliness of women who had accompanied their husbands to the US while their husbands studied at Illinois State University. “ISU at the time had quite a few students from developing countries who brought their wives with them. These women were coming from large extended families where mothers, sisters and aunts would all help with household chores. Without this family support the women were desperately lonely.”

Although Judy and Norma played with the idea of reaching out to these women for a while, the suicide of a young Egyptian woman who had accompanied her husband to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was the catalyst for the official establishment of the club. Speaking of her death, Judy said, “Her death spurred us into action.”

Judy and Norma began to host monthly meetings, inviting women they thought could use the support. Judy explained that the main goal was to help these women feel part of the community. “Part of the goal was simply to get these women socialized and out meeting other people, and also to explain American culture to them. So during a month if there was a holiday, we had a program about the holiday. We explained what the holiday was and why we celebrated it. Many of them had children in school who home talking about the holidays, so we told the women about them and created the appropriate crafts.”

One of the most moving events of International Wives happens at the December meetings. “We explain why we celebrated Christmas—we certainly don’t try to indoctrinate anyone—so we focus on the secular part of Christmas. We sang Christmas carols, and it was so interesting: no matter what country these women came from, everybody knew ‘Silent Night.’ We always ended the meeting with Silent Night, and everyone sang it in their own language.”

One of the achievements Judy is best known for in the community is her involvement in the foundation of Habitat for Humanity. It began after she and some friends heard about Habitat for Humanity and attended the annual international meeting in Indianapolis during the organizations’ 7th year. They came home interested in starting a local affiliate. “Anytime you go to an international meeting of any organization it’s just so inspiring,” she laughed. “You meet all these people from all over the world, with a common goal and a common interest, and we were just so excited.”

In order to make this dream a reality, Judy contacted a downstate liaison with the national office and got to work. “It was quite scary, because you know you need to raise thousands of dollars to build a home. Most organizations have relatively low monthly dues and here we were asking for thousands of dollars!” Money was not the only barrier—Judy was concerned about getting enough support from the community to make it possible.

“We went around—well, basically I went around—to different churches, and I talked about Habitat,” Judy recalled. One day, it all came together. “When our Habitat contact from downstate attended one of the meetings, he saw the number of people that were there and said ‘You know, you really need to stop talking and just start the affiliate.’ Which was a terrifying idea! So at the end of the meeting I said—I don’t even know what church we were meeting in—that anyone who wanted to start a Habitat affiliate in our community, please stay after the first meeting.” Coincidentally, the perfect number of people stayed to form Habitat for Humanity’s first board of trustees. Habitat for Humanity of McLean County was up and running.

Their next challenge came in finding houses and lots, and that worked itself out just as smoothly as the Board. “This was the time when Bloomington was involved in urban renewal, so the City was tearing condemned houses down and they had a lot of vacant lots,” Judy said. Mayor Jesse Smart and the City of Bloomington gifted Habitat for Humanity several lots, and they received multiple houses from donors. “Donors gave us houses—which actually saved them money. To tear down a house and put it in the landfill was quite expensive, so it was mutually beneficial to both the giver and Habitat,” Judy explained.

Judy was both president and CEO of Habitat over the course of 15 years. Habitat for Humanity of McLean County built homes in Lexington, Chenoa, Heyworth, Gridley and Saybrook, improving the lives of several families outside the twin cities. “I forget how many houses we built when I retired,” she admitted. She felt the organization was becoming too “We were a bank, we were a social service agency, we were offering educational classes. Even though several agencies helped and cooperated with us it became clear that we needed more professional leadership (than my non-professional leadership). We put a search committee together and chose Tom Ginder. The office moved from my bedroom to one provided by Second Presbyterian Church. Habitat has grown and flourished.

In addition to her activities with International Women, Amnesty International, and Habitat for Humanity, Judy spent 20 years teaching ESL at the Normal Public Library. She also volunteered with numerous organizations, including the McLean County Museum of History, the David Davis Mansion, and Recycling Furniture for Families. She believes that volunteering is one of the joys of life.

She held numerous part-time jobs after her children were grown, but spent all those years teaching ESL because she could always return to the job after the regular trips to Europe she took with her husband Jerry. Not only did they visit Europe during Jerry’s sabbatical, but every other year for 20 years they brought students along with them during the University’s January Short Term. Traveling was a passion of theirs, and Judy still takes annual trips to California and sometimes to foreign countries. Her recent trips include Cuba, China and Tanzania.

Judy has four children: Jeff, Doug, Claire, and Steve. Judy also has eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, including two granddaughters who have inherited their grandparents’ wanderlust. One was in the peace Corps in Ghana and the other will work with street children in Tanzania next summer.

Lauren Lacy

Lauren Lacy

Director of Development at the McLean County Museum of History