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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005 01:44 am

Her huge heart

Judy Dyer saw the good in other people and created bonds that will survive her

There’s a specific string of words people use to describe Judy Dyer. They don’t just say she was smart; they use the word “wise.” They don’t just say she was funny; they say she was a bawdy smart-ass. And they don’t just say she was a friend; they say she made each person feel extra special. “She had the knack of making everybody in her life feel like the center of the universe, ” says Cassandra Claman. “Each of us felt like Judy was there for us completely.”
That’s saying something, because Judy had a vast collection of friends — some she had gathered at her job as an attorney with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, some she met through her various volunteer activities (Sojourn Womens Shelter, Big Brothers Big Sisters, ACLU), some found at Temple Israel, and some introduced by her kids, Josh and Erica. Nancy Mackiewicz, a geologist who has been fast friends with Judy since 1985, says Judy simply honed in on the good in each person. “With all your friends, you see something unique in them that you cherish and you love, right? Well, Judy saw that in a lot of people,” Nancy says. “She had a huge heart, and all these people could fit into it.” Realizing that not everybody had such a flexible cardiac capacity, Judy coordinated her friends by personality. The specific word they use to describe this quirk is “compartmentalization.”
“She did it in all aspects of her life,” says Vera Herst, another IEPA attorney. “She didn’t tell one person everything. I knew a piece of this, Cassandra would know a piece of that.”
The compartment Cassandra and Vera fit in was something Judy called the Three Furies. The name referred to goddesses borne from the three drops of blood that fell when Cronus castrated Uranus. The women enjoyed the chilling effect the name had on the men in their lives, but it mainly meant meeting for lunch every Wednesday . “I felt sorry for other people eating, because we were so loud and noisy, screeching and cackling, oh my god, it was very therapeutic,” Vera says. Kathi Davis belonged to a slightly different compartment. She and Judy had become friends in 1988, when they had cubicles next to each other at IEPA. Kathi was an intern, but they bonded, partially because they both grew up as the only girl in a family with four brothers. Judy initiated a tradition of going to lunch every month with Kathi and Janet, another IEPA colleague. As she would later do with the Furies, Judy turned these lunches into advice sessions. “If I’d had a bad day or I was going through a lot, she’d never let me whine, she’d smack me,” Kathi says. “Not physically, of course, but she’d say why not look at it this way? She was just this empowering force.”
They knew Judy had breast cancer in the 1990s, but had been healthy for more than five years. Last fall, Judy mentioned that the cancer had returned, but it never became a topic for lunch conversation. “She never focused on herself. She always wanted to know how you were doing, how your life was going, how she could help,” Kathi says. “Janet and I never knew if it was because she wanted to act for an hour and a half like she was just one of the girls or what.”
By winter, Judy began to lose strength in her legs. She used a walker, then a wheelchair. Finally, she became homebound. The Furies had lunch wherever Judy was — the chemo lounge, the hospital, or at home. When Judy could no longer eat, they had “unlunches,” just getting together to chat. Still, Judy made them laugh. She started composing a “goners list” of people she wanted to “take out” before she died, “to leave the world a better place,” Vera recalls. “She had this gallows humor,” Vera says. “Like one time we were talking, and I said oh god, we’re both going to hell! And she said, ‘Well, I’ll be all burnt up by the time you get there.’ ” As the cancer pillaged Judy’s body, friends from every compartment teamed up to provide her family with home-cooked meals three nights a week. Another team took over the yard, dug out the overgrown shrubs and installed new plants to give Judy the garden of her dreams. When they heard about the Yard to Yard Challenge sponsored by this paper, they submitted a contest entry on Judy’s behalf, and won. The friends she had kept apart so they wouldn’t get on each other’s nerves got together to take care of Judy. “The compartments started to break down,” Nancy says. On Monday night, Judy’s husband, Jack, phoned eight of her female friends and asked them to be pallbearers at her funeral the next morning. It was, perhaps, the ultimate bonding experience. “After we got her into the hearse, we all started sobbing,” Cassandra says. “It’s no accident that they normally ask men to do this; male pallbearers are not nearly as messy.”
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