A Life: Judith Esmay ‘renowned for her leadership’

  • Hanover Planning Board Chairwoman Judith Esmay reviews renovation plans for the Hanover Inn with Dartmouth Associate Director of Real Estate Tim McNamara, second from right, and other officials in Hanover, N.H., on March 17, 2011. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Judith Esmay in a 2017 photograph. (Courtesy St. Thomas Episcopal Church) Courtesy St. Thomas Episcopal Church

  • Judith Esmay, wearing a sweater she handknit, at a family gathering in 1998. (Jane Ahlfeld photograph) Jane Ahlfeld photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/28/2020 8:31:14 PM
Modified: 6/28/2020 8:35:21 PM

HANOVER — When Judith Esmay had to make an important decision, she did her research and she listened.

“Judith taught me that if you listen to people, you can change the world,” said the Rev. Guy Collins, rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hanover. “She was renowned for her leadership. She was just incredibly gifted at getting to the heart of things and helping other people discover the truth for themselves.”

Esmay, who was born on Nov. 30, 1931, in Trenton, N.J., died on April 28, 2020, at 88, following a brief illness. She moved to Hanover in 1992 with her late husband, Robert Strauss, quickly getting involved in civic life including nearly two decades on the Hanover Planning Board. She was serving as chairwoman of the board at the time of her death.

“She established a standard for an open meeting process that was thoughtful and meaningful, but always had the ability to bring the issues back on point regardless of how contentious the issues were,” said Robert Houseman, director of planning, zoning and codes in Hanover. “For me it was something I looked at and aspired to when I reach the point in my life where I can give back to the community as a volunteer.”

After graduating from Bucknell University with a degree in English in 1954, Esmay married and moved to Morris County, N.J., where she raised her three children. She became involved in social justice work through the NAACP, the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters.

“I remember part of my childhood being at anti-Vietnam War marches, standing in front of the Morristown Town Hall with signs,” recalled Esmay’s daughter, Jane Ahlfeld, who lives in Maine. It wasn’t unusual for Esmay to talk to kids in the neighborhood about important topics of the day, including civil rights. “Throughout my life, as I brought friends home and introduced them to my mom they were always blown away by her.”

After she and her first husband were divorced, Esmay went to law school at Rutgers University in 1973 during the women’s rights movement.

“She had an active mind and always wanted to learn. She was always open and welcome to learning more,” Ahlfeld said of the three years her mother spent in law school. “She used that for the rest of her life.”

Esmay focused on education policy and governance and started a business with Strauss, called Strauss Esmay Associates to help school districts throughout New Jersey with policy needs. The couple had been married for 42 years when Strauss died in 2019.

“One of the major requirements for my mom was to live somewhere she could walk in town. The house that they found isn’t many blocks from the center of Hanover was just perfect for their later years,” Ahlfeld said. “She walked every day.”

Esmay also quickly became involved at St. Thomas, where she held senior leadership roles, taught Education for Ministry classes and started a knitting retreat. She was made a Canon for Lay Leadership Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, by Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the church.

“She was renowned throughout the diocese,” Collins said. “She was the Socrates of the Upper Valley. She would always say ‘and what do you think?’ By saying that she transformed countless lives that I saw right before me. She taught me to be better at giving people space to be listened to and be heard.”

That leadership extended to the Planning Board where in 2016 as board chairwoman she was the only member to vote to approve an indoor practice facility proposed by Dartmouth College in downtown Hanover. Dartmouth appealed the decision and the New Hampshire Supreme Court ultimately decided in Dartmouth’s favor.

“Judith’s approach to the indoor practice facility was similar to her approach on all other issues,” Houseman said. “She vetted it thoroughly, she listened intently and teased out the key facts and used her understanding of the regulations to inform her decision.”

The proposal was hotly contested in town and while meetings that included it on the agenda could become contentious, Esmay was able to conduct them in a way where everyone was heard.

“(She was) always steady and calm. … She came to the meetings prepared with notes. She had created a script that outlined the steps that needed to be fulfilled. Her attention to detail was sharp and always in focus,” Houseman said.

It was an extension of her love of and dedication to education, which was always at the forefront of her life.

“Everything that she touched dealt with education, whether it was at St. Thomas or in the diocese or even in her roles in Hanover, in her civic roles, at the heart of each of these roles was to understand and was to educate,” said Gene R. Garthwaite, who met Esmay and Strauss when they moved to Hanover.

About 15 years ago, she helped lead the church through a leadership crisis.

“One of her extraordinary qualities was steadiness,” Garthwaite, of Hartland, said. “Her leadership style was very quiet. In some ways you didn’t know you were being led by her. That was an important part of her personality. Quiet, calm, but terribly competent and thoughtful at the same time.”

Esmay was also a prolific knitter — if you saw her wearing a sweater, chances are she knit it and designed the pattern herself — and shared her skills with her family, especially at Christmastime where around 20 people gathered at the her home.

“Every year it was a different theme,” Ahlfeld said. And that theme was usually attached to a mathematical or scientific concept.

One year, she made Mobius cowls to teach them about the Mobius strip concept, another year pi scarves where she inserted family members’ birthdays into the pattern using colored stripes and challenged them to find them. She also shared her skill set with others by teaching knitting classes through OSHER@Dartmouth.

“When she talked about her knitting she always sort of started by talking about the pattern she was going to follow in her head, oftentimes creating new patterns in her head, about how her fingers responded to the quality of the wool she was working with,” Garthwaite said. “She could spot hand-dyed wool immediately.”

Esmay, who is also survived by four other children and step-children, five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and three siblings, was devoted to her causes and seeing everything through to the end, no matter how difficult it may be.

“Whatever she was involved with, there was always sort of a clear path that she wanted to follow,” Garthwaite said. “She confidently knew that she would succeed.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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