A Love of the Democratic Process – And Lots of Cookies

What does it take to make things work on Election Day?  People like Judy Johnson.

“It didn’t matter what time of day I went to vote, Judy’s energy level was unbelievable.  She would take charge with energy and a smile.  She was just an amazing woman,” recalled Deborah Pauly, a friend, neighbor, and long-time city councilwoman in Villa Park.  “On Election Day, all the polling places, the poll workers, the signage, it just magically appears… as far as the voter knows.  But it takes people like Judy, who have commitment and a love of the democratic process, working hard behind the scenes.”

Judy Johnson served as an Inspector for every Orange County and national election since 1994 – that’s almost 20 consecutive years!  That year, she volunteered to set up a polling place in her garage in Villa Park, a “tiny but mighty” community of only 2.1 square miles with a population of about 6,000 people.  “It’s just a little burg between Orange and Orange,” jokes Judy’s husband Wayne, with his trademark sense of humor, illuminating the fact that Villa Park is almost entirely surrounded by the city of Orange. 

When “helping hands” were short, Wayne often found himself drafted by his wife to serve as a Roster, Street Index, or JBC Clerk.  “I can’t say I did such a good job,” he admitted.  “She had to continually remind me that I can’t make any political statements.”  Wayne liked to sit at the JBC and joke with his friends as they arrived to vote.  “Have you voted before?” he’d ask.  “Yes!” the friend would answer, unsuspecting.  Wayne would raise an eyebrow in alarm.  “Today?” he’d say.

Judy always provided drinks, coffee and food for her poll worker volunteers and word is she was a great cook.  But her specialty was cookies, probably thousands of cookies.  “She was so hospitable.  She just made people feel so welcome,” Wayne said.  “She never forgot a name.  So when you walked in she would greet you by name.”  Judy loved working as an Inspector on Election Day with her friends there to help her, which made it easy.  “She just made it a part of her life,” Wayne said.

Judy Johnson was living proof that the election process is really only as good as the volunteers who work hard to make it happen.

One thing that’s striking is how enduring her friendships were.  Anne Stefani met Judy when she first moved to Orange County in 1978.  Their young sons, who are now in their forties, became friends and Anne and Judy remained friends ever since.  “If I had to pick out one thing that I remember most, it’s hard,” Anne said, “because she was so friendly and so nice.  If you were in a restaurant, she was always the one person who would know the waiter’s name.  Everybody who knew her will never forget her.”

Judy’s volunteerism and community spirit didn’t stop on Election Day.  She headed up the Villa Park Women’s League and helped organize The Giving Tree, a Christmas tree with tags on the branches that allowed families to give a gift to a special child picked out by a local charity.  She was especially excited about the seven scholarships the League was able to award to promising college-bound High School students in a single year.

Beth Collins, a friend of over 30 years who worked with Judy on the Giving Tree project, recalled Judy’s legendary energy:  “When Judy did something, she did it full steam ahead.  She always had something going, somebody she had to help, someone she had to bring cookies to.  She was on all school boards that were possible with her five children.  It’s amazing how much she fit into a 20-hour day!”

“Judy was a true friend when it counted most,” Beth said.  “After I lost my husband, I don’t know how I would have gotten through that difficult time without her.  She refused to let me grieve alone.”

For nine years, Judy served as a docent at the Bowers Museum.  She became known as “Mom” not only to her own five children but to their young friends as well.  Her eleven grandchildren called her “Nani.”

“Judy was a great fan of the Angels baseball team,” recalled Cookie Stubing, a friend for 25 years.  “That’s how I originally got to knew her because my husband ‘Moose’ was the Angels’ third base coach.”  Superstars like Bob Boone and Rod Carew – two Angels players inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame – as well as Doug DeCinces and Orlando Cabrera all lived in Villa Park.  So Judy Johnson, as any Angels’ fan would have to admit, was living in baseball heaven.

Cookie remembered the first time she came to vote in Judy’s garage.  “In New York City where we came from, we always voted in big places like schools or halls,” Cookie said.  “So the first time voted here in Orange County and somebody told us it was in somebody’s garage, I was shocked.  We were thinking: Somebody’s pulling our leg.  We can’t be voting in a garage!  Then we arrived at Judy’s garage and she said ‘Hey Cookie.  Hey Moose.  Come on in!’  We thought, this is just like you always heard about the good old days where everybody knew each other and it was just so friendly.”  Cookie’s real name, if you’re curious, is Estelle but everybody called her Cookie because:  “My great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and I were all named Estelle.  We all had to have nicknames so we could tell each other apart!”  Moose got his nickname because as a young baseball player he ran over a poor first baseman – twice in one game – and a sportswriter quipped that he was “like a runaway moose!”  The name stuck.  You can still buy baseball cards on eBay featuring the cheerful mug of Moose Stubing, one of Judy’s favorite neighbors.

“On Election Day, Judy knew everything,” Cookie said.  “If there was any question that came up, she knew exactly how to handle it.  Of course, there was no problem with IDs since Judy knew everybody by first name.  If I could think of just one word to describe Judy, she was… effervescent.  You know how some people when you meet them, you always feel better and happy?  That was Judy.  She never said:  I don’t have time.  If you would ask, she always had time to help you out.  When I heard that she had passed away, I just thought:  A light has gone out in Villa Park.”

Someone once asked Mahatma Gandhi, “What is your message?”  He replied:  “My life is my message.”  This applies perfectly to Judy Johnson.

Judy Johnson passed away at her home on October 20, 2013.  There were over 900 people at her funeral.  This upcoming 2014 primary election would have been her 20th year as a poll worker volunteer.  Judy touched the hearts and lives of the people in her community and the voters of Orange County.  “Without people like Judy, democracy wouldn’t work,” Deborah Pauly said.

They say the secret of “a life well-lived” is to become someone who will be missed.

Thanks Judy… for all the cookies.  And your countless acts of kindness. 

We truly miss you.