Farewell, Old Friend: The Three Lessons of Judy Ryerson



 Oh, Judy.

 One of the things I dislike like about my job is writing obituaries about someone I truly like and respect.

 Judy Ryerson. I knew the call would come. I knew she was in Hospice, heavily sedated, in the final throes of lung cancer. I knew this day would come four years ago, the day she and I sat in her corner condo, looked at her doll furniture, and she told me she could beat the cancer.

 I won’t lie to you and tell you she and I were best buddies, but I loved Judy, probably because part of me wanted to be Judy.

 Some of you may think of her as the former Ward One councilwoman, but that was the least of her achievements. Judy epitomized so much of what makes Gulfport, Gulfport.

 Judy is – was – one of the few Gulfport people I knew B.G. (Before I worked for the Gabber). The first three months I lived in Gulfport, I didn’t know anyone but my downstairs neighbor, Jeannie. One day Jeannie – likely tired of worrying she had a crazy hermit living upstairs – shoved a Gabber under my nose and suggested I look through it. I did, and noticed that the Gulfport Community Players needed volunteers. I started helping the Players work on a show called Marry Me, and I met Judy and The Girls, the backstage ladies. Judy was not only one of these wonderful ladies: she, along with a few of the other ladies, helped start the community theatre.

 Judy and The Girls – that’s not a formal name, it’s just how I thought of them – had all retired, and every one of them looked every bit the part of the sweet-faced grandmother, always ready with a smile and a cookie. I initially dismissed them as frail ladies who probably didn’t know much. Well, OK, I didn’t think of Judy as frail, but I did, at first, chalk her up to a retired grandma who probably pinned hems on costumes and brought the cast cookies.

 Judy and The Girls taught me a lot. None of it was about cookies. They had all married, some more than three times, and many had also divorced. I asked one of the ladies (not Judy) – a five-time marriage veteran – why she had married so often.

 “Well, sweetie,” she said, “I just thought every time I slept with a man, I had to marry him.”

 Judy Ryerson Lesson One: Never judge a book by its cover.

 I had no idea women could act like these ladies. The Medicare crowd I knew did not move set pieces. They did not stay out drinking after rehearsal.

 They did not pose naked for calendars.

 When the Gulfport Community Players created the Backstage Babes calendar – which is precisely what it sounds like – Judy was right there, baring it all to help one of her favorite groups.

 By this time I worked at the Gabber, and when my editor sent me to write about the calendar, I asked Judy if we could use a photo of her posing. She hesitated for just a moment before laughing and telling me, “What the hell. You only go around once.”

 Judy Ryerson Lesson Two: Laugh. Nothing matters that much.

 While still new in town, I commented one night how Gulfport seemed completely non-traditional.

 “Oh, I don’t know,” Judy said, lighting one of her cigarettes and taking a deep drag. “We manage to fill the churches every weekend.”

 I don’t know which church Judy attended, if any, but I know what she believed in: Gulfport’s history and her future. She had a hand in everything from Scout Hall to city trucks. I know Judy didn’t always live in Gulfport, but I know that once she moved here, this city – and her family – became her entire life.

 Judy understood the delicate balance between the old guard and the new arrivals. She believed in both groups, and she believed in her city. I came to very much respect how much she believed that Gulfport could move forward while holding on to its history.

 Judy Ryerson Lesson Three: Put your whole heart into what you believe in.

 In April, 2008, I learned that this woman whom I so admired – now a council member – had lung cancer. My editor charged me with the horrible task of writing about this.

 “I’m fighting cancer that is winnable,” she told me. I wanted so much for that to be true. She showed me the latest additions to her doll furniture. She smiled. We laughed. But inside I died a little, because people rarely beat lung cancer.

 I did not cry that day, but I cried the entire time I wrote her obituary, and I cried as I wrote this. Knowing her all those years ago changed my life, because she showed me a different way to look at life. I feel her absence keenly, not just because I will miss seeing her, but because so many Gulfportians will never know her. Next week or next year a new recruit will join the Players, and they will know nothing of Judy. That seems wrong.

 My pain is nothing compared to what her family and close friends feel, and my loss means little in the face of what Gulfport lost: a diplomat who spoke her mind, loved her city, and poured her kind, gruff, compassionate self into making it a better place for all of us, whether she agreed with us or not.

 Farewell, old friend. And thank you. We will miss you more than you can possibly imagine.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.