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Judith Hart Smith

Intense, passionate, political, brilliant and visionary – Judy Smith was all of these, and so much more.

The longtime Missoula activist and leader on issues of women’s rights, social justice and world peace died Tuesday, Nov. 6, after a long battle with cancer. She was 69.

Smith leaves behind a legacy of empowering women and families, say those who knew her.

“I’ve always been of the belief that Judy was the mother of every good thing that happened for women in Missoula and in Montana,” said Carol Williams, a former state senator and Senate minority leader from Missoula.

“She was amazing,” said Williams, who worked closely with Smith to push women’s issues forward over the decades and watched with awe as she tackled one ambitious project after the next.

“She never gave up, and she was constantly working for social justice and making women’s lives more productive,” Williams said.

“That was her gift. She never had a moment in her day when she wasn’t thinking about those things.

“She didn’t get up to eat breakfast, she got up to figure out how to make things better, especially for women.”

*****

Smith’s list of accomplishments is long, and speaks to the seemingly endless drive Williams mentioned.

Although she had doctorate in microbiology, Smith’s mind was pulled in the direction of social work.

While living in Texas, she was on the ground floor of developing the Roe v. Wade case; in Montana, she was instrumental in founding of the Blue Mountain Women’s Clinic to provide choices for women regarding reproductive rights.

She founded Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development, which launched in the late 1980s to empower women with life and employment skills and help them move off the welfare system. She co-founded Women’s Economic Development Group Organization, which offered business incubation grants and workforce training to women, and Homeword, an organization that promoted homeownership and affordable housing.

For 20-some years, she taught at the University of Montana’s School of Social Work, where she inspired thousands of women to lead the next generation.

“She truly grounded them in the skills, the strategies and the knowledge of what it takes to make social change,” said Diane Sands, a longtime friend, peer and collaborator.

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Sands credits Smith with re-energizing the Women’s Center at UM, and helping to make its work in organizing statewide women’s conferences a success.

“With funding from the Montana Committee for the Humanities, we held these conferences on topics such ‘The Montana Economy as if Women Mattered,’ and all of them were focused around women’s health care and reproductive issues,” said the former Montana legislator and activist who founded PRIDE.

“Judy was so incredibly brilliant and energetic and visionary in her commitments,” Sands said. “She understood deeply and broadly on the intellectual level what was needed to create fundamental change for women – and then she dedicated her life to it.

“I believe there is not a person in Montana who has not been touched by her work. Her fingerprints are all over state legislation about domestic violence, health care and reproductive rights.”

At 6 feet tall and with an intense demeanor, always fighting to end oppression and improve the lives of women, Smith fit the definition of an Amazon warrior well, Sands said.

“She was a fabulous mentor to many, but she was a challenging personality to be around,” Sands said.

Smith could be intimidating because she was smart, and because she was always armed with facts and data when she made a point, fired up an argument and pushed legislators out of their comfort zone.

“She was a force to be reckoned with,” Sands said, “and it wasn’t always easy to be around. But she was admired and respected nonetheless.

“And those of us who worked alongside her loved her.”

Opinionated, sometimes demanding and stubborn, Smith knew how to inspire action.

“I really thought of her as a transformational leader,” said Terry Kendrick, who met Smith at UM and worked with her on a variety of projects over the past 30 years.

“She was knowledgeable about a ton of issues, and what made her a visionary is that she could really anticipate the next thing people should grapple with,” said Kendrick, who currently works on special projects for the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

By way of example, Kendrick points a conference on the topic of incest in the early 1980s that Smith helped convene.

“At the time, nobody anywhere was talking about incest or taking a look at it,” Kendrick said. “Of course, she never did her work in isolation. She was a collaborator and she nurtured leadership in other people.”

One trait that Kendrick has long admired is the fact that despite Smith’s deep knowledge on many topics, she encouraged others to find something they truly cared about and learn about its depth along the way.

“She encouraged people to not wait for permission or wait until you had all this expertise and elaborate resume to do the work,” Kendrick said.

“Judy felt if there is an interest or passion that you might have, that you have every right to jump into it all and help solve problems.”

*****

Kendrick also remains impressed by Smith’s seemingly bottomless knowledge and the ease with which she tapped into it.

“She would be going to give a talk in front of the Legislature or at a conference and she would say she needed to look over her notes,” Kendrick said. “Her ‘notes’ would be two or three illegible scribbles and from that she would be able to rattle off 20 minutes of information with out once pausing to say, ‘Um.’ ”

For Smith, social change meant local change,and her efforts extended to many corners of the community, such as helping to launch neighborhood councils in Missoula, voicing her concerns at school board and City Council meetings, expressing her views on Montana Public Radio, and writing countless letters to the editor and guest columns.

“She was pretty extraordinary,” Kendrick said. “And yet for all that she did and the awards that she won, Judy loved simple things, like being with her cats and entering things in the county fair.

“It always made me smile to see this watercolor she made of a fish – a pretty goofy-looking fish. She won a first place at the fair, and it was the thing that hung prominently in her house.

“She didn’t have anything that boasted about her accomplishments on the wall, not even her doctorate plaque. But she had that fish and that county fair ribbon – and that was part of her charm.”

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Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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