In honor of Women’s History Month last year, Touchmark launched a three-year initiative to identify and recognize exceptional female residents who defied the odds to pursue opportunities that were historically off-limits for women. Please enjoy the story of Judy Harrington, our second feature of 2021.
Who influenced you?
My grandmother, who was the daughter of homesteaders in Nebraska. Something she did that makes me so proud is that she built her own house at one time, and it was a simple, modest house. As a little kid, I worked with her while she did that. Another is my mother, who became County Treasurer where we lived in Nebraska when I was 7-9 years old. My mother got a lot of support and compliments for her work. I thought she ran the whole courthouse. Another big influence later was John F. Kennedy, and it fed into my service in the Peace Corps, which had a lot to do with my career choices.
How did your career start and where did it end?
My job life started by working after-hours in a print shop. When I retired, I was the Associate Director of the Peace Corps Agency in Washington D.C. There were dozens of jobs and moves in between, which I favored.
I like a lot of different experiences; I’m a Gemini, so I like to learn a little bit about everything.
In high school, I thought I wanted to be a gymnast, basketball player, or softball player, and I did all those things at a mediocre level. Another emphasis in high school was journalism, and the journalism teacher, Hattie Steinberg, remained a big influence on my life. It brought things full circle when I was asked to do the eulogy at her funeral. She was the one who insisted that I go to college. There was no one in my family who ever talked about it. There was some sexism involved in the lack of initiative put forth by my family. My dad and stepdad both said the point of going to college was to find someone to marry who would take care of me. Those two men sparked some defiance and stubbornness in me.
I thought, “I’ll show you. I’ll go to college; it will be great, and you can think what you want.”
Ms. Steinberg put scholarship applications on my desk. She had asked me the day before where I was going to go to college, and I said I hadn’t thought about it because there isn’t any money. Can you imagine? I was in the Honor Society and my homeroom counselor never once spoke to me about going to college.
When was this?
I graduated from Lincoln Southeast High School in 1959. There was an application for a scholarship in physical education ($100) and one for journalism ($200) with a job at the local paper. It was fabulous because the newspaper job paid a dollar an hour, and the University of Nebraska tuition was very cheap.
What obstacles did you face?
First, it was money; second, I was the first in my family to go to college. Some families have an expectation that the oldest will go to college, and then the younger ones hear, “Well, you want to go to college like your big sister, don’t you?” But there was none of that, and it was a discordant family: “What makes you think you should go to college?” I think I overcame that with a lot of encouragement from that teacher.
In terms of female performance, some family environments are all set up for them. My situation resulted in my being rather resistant to hearing people say, “No, you can’t,” and “Why should you?” I cast my net well beyond the family for support. There were a lot of teachers.
What do you wish you had known before entering journalism and the work you would go on to do?
I would have made a more serious engagement with my university education. You have a state school with classes of 300 students, and I didn’t apply myself, except in journalism. My second major was in Political Science. I ended up working in three presidential campaigns and got a presidential appointment, but it had nothing to do with my Political Science classes. I would have taken debate, Latin, and American history to have a stronger background, and it would have eventually all have related to a journalism education.
What happened next?
I went on to the next step that my father and stepfather said I couldn’t do. During college (and this still exists), the Hearst newspaper family put on a national competition between journalism schools. They had cash and point awards for individual students and for schools. The University of Nebraska J-School was very competitive in this contest. By virtue of my points, I was the second-place student in the country. A young man from Boston College was the No. 1 student, and the University of Nebraska was the No. 1 school. My highest cash award was $750, which was spectacular in the early ’60s. So, when I left college, I bought a used Karmann Ghia and moved to Albany, New York.
What was your proudest accomplishment?
It was that competition, which resulted in a trip to Washington D.C. and New York City. It was my first airplane ride. The older Hearsts were friends of Joseph Kennedy, so the awards were given in the Oval Office by President John Kennedy, and it was hard to believe—I was in the clouds. By that time, I wanted to be a government reporter.
This brings me to a side story. I had read everything about John Kennedy and the book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II, where it recounted how he had saved his crew when their boat was blown up. He swam to a little island in the Pacific and wrote a rescue note on a coconut. Kennedy gave it to a native on the island and asked him to go 27 miles to another island where there was an American encampment. The coconut said how many were stranded and to come and get them.
Anyway, that coconut was on his desk in the Oval Office, and because I was so fascinated by his heroism and everything he’d done in his early life, I walked over to his desk, and I touched the coconut.
I write a lot of small stories, essays, and I wrote one called I Touched the Coconut, which explained a lot of things, like how I entered the Peace Corps because of Kennedy.
Where did you go from there?
One reason Hearst got into this competition was to recruit reporters. All of it was like a dream, really. William Randolph Hearst (they owned 11 newspapers at the time) asked me to go to San Francisco to work, but I was from Geneva, Nebraska, and I was not ready to go to San Francisco. So, not knowing enough, I went to Albany, New York, and worked there for a short time.
Back in Nebraska, I applied for the Peace Corps. They sent me to Venezuela. I had failed Spanish in college, and my professor thought it was justice that I was going to be assigned to Venezuela. I entered the Peace Corps in ’65 and completed in ’67. It has had more influence on my life than anything else.
Working in presidential campaigns had a lot of influence, but you only remember the high points, whereas the Peace Corps service changed my life and usually does for other Volunteers.
You refine your own values; you’re in a multicultural environment (which I love), and I worked with kids. I came back to the Washington Journalism Institute in Washington D.C., worked for some people on the Hill, and eventually joined the presidential campaign of Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, which ended in defeat in November 1972; however, I stayed on with him.
Gary Hart of Colorado was McGovern’s campaign manager. Bill Clinton was a field organizer. I went with the Hart Presidential campaign to Denver in 1984, and to Little Rock, Arkansas, for Bill Clinton’s first campaign for president in 1991.
Clinton won, was entitled to political appointments, and for the Peace Corps Agency he designated returned Peace Corps Volunteers for those positions.
At this point, I became Associate Director, bringing my Peace Corps life full circle.
What advice would you give to women pursuing barrier-breaking careers today?
Kamala Harris was asked this question and answered: “I eat ‘no’ for breakfast.”
I think you can be resilient, undeterred, committed to your dreams, and yet look for support from people who believe in you.
It was said of Elizabeth Warren: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I think that’s perfect.
What did your dad and/or stepdad say later when you’d accomplished all of these things?
Nothing really, but my mother and stepmother were cheerleaders.
Going back to your proudest accomplishments …
Yes. I would say that 1969 and 1970 were the only two years I had to look for a job. I was referred or recruited to the next ones. I had wonderful job experiences.
If you had to choose from all of those, which would you say was your favorite?
Peace Corps Volunteer. It made me sensitive to other cultures. You further your resilience, your self-reliance; it’s very challenging to go into a different culture. I was not an A+ student in Spanish, but I could get by. When I was a staff member at the Peace Corps, I traveled a lot for my work. I went to several countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, North and South America, and enjoyed it the most when I could communicate in Spanish.
After I retired, I had an appetite for foreign travel and being in the midst of multicultural experiences.
I just value that and have respect for other countries and other people.
What are your favorite activities/hobbies now?
Since retirement, I’ve been to Cuba twice, to Haiti, and to Syria before the civil war. Also a Viking Cruise on the Danube. Still, as they say, ‘I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.’
I’m just crazy for dogs and cats. I’ve walked or taken care of all the dogs on our campus.
I’m in a writers’ club as well as a statewide program called the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), and I’ve taken as many as 18 classes at a time. It’s been functioning on Zoom this year, and I think these lectures and back-and-forth with the professors is great.
The dining room here, of course, is the crossroads of friendship and gossip. At the outset of COVID-19, a resident started something called the Grapevine newsletter and put out the first three issues. She then went to Massachusetts for a few months, and on her way out, she said, “Judy, you’re going to have to do this.” I have a terrific partner for the Grapevine, named Karolyn Anderson, and now we’re on the 11th issue.
The other thing I like to do is take pictures of residents to frame and give to them. I like Canasta and am crazy about the OLLI program. My goal is to learn something every day.
I am what I am: I have loved Ruth Bader Ginsberg, I love Kamala, I love Michelle Obama; I’m a Democrat. And with these experiences, that’s my life!
Thank you to Judy for sharing her story with us. Stay tuned for our third exceptional featured woman.