A Life: Judy Hunter

  • Judy Hunter, of Thetford, Vt., reacts to introductions of Suite Notes band members during their 20th anniversary performance at the Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction, Vt., on April 28, 2017. Hunter encouraged the formation of the group while she was activities director at the center in 1997. (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

  • Judy Hunter, seated at the loom, learns how to weave from Susan Fetter as potter Tom Fetter works on a piece in an undated photograph. Hunter went on to weave many tapestries and have a loom in their home in Thetford, Vt. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/1/2021 9:00:15 PM
Modified: 8/1/2021 9:00:17 PM

THETFORD — Judy Hunter was never afraid to call someone up, whether that was a shy neighbor or an internationally renowned human rights activist.

Sandra Ordway was a close friend of Hunter through their church who helped take care of her later in life. Hunter was older than Ordway’s parents, but she always felt that they had a friendship more than a “mother-daughter relationship.

“Oh my goodness—a big giving heart, a heart of service,” said Ordway as she tried to describe Hunter. “She was always looking to fill a need where she would see one or where she was asked to serve one. A real generous person. She really met people where they were at in life, no judgment. She just loved people. She was an amazing conversationalist. She could take to anyone about anything.”

Born in Illinois, Hunter’s family moved to Ohio where she attended high school and then studied radio at Ohio Wesleyan University. After college, she traveled the country with a group of young women doing market research for Procter & Gamble. In 1963, she married Rob Hunter, a young architect enamored with Frank Lloyd Wright. They had a vague notion of settling in New England, so he blindfolded her and told her to put a finger on a map. She landed on White River Junction.

“We were young and silly,” Judy Hunter told the Valley News in 2006. “We didn’t take life too seriously at that time.”

After settling in a Hartford motel for a month, they found a farmhouse on Thetford Hill. Her husband spent decades adding finishing touches to their home— secret cabinets, doors disguised as bookcases and restored hardwood flooring. When he died in 2006, he was planning the last improvement: A sewing room for Judy.

Her husband refused to sacrifice his aesthetic ideals to take in more work. Their sons, Burtch and Bridge, said that she never pressured their father to bring in more money even when they struggled to put food on the table. She had a wealth of energy to compensate for a lack of funds — yarn and paper were all she needed to keep them occupied.

Chris Berger met Hunter more than 50 years ago when they were both young mothers struggling to make ends meet minutes away. They met at a party when Berger’s first daughter was just weeks old. By the time she got home, Hunter had already gotten her number and given her a call.

They became close friends, and Hunter became a “second mother” to Berger’s daughters, Cynthia and Kathleen.

“We didn’t have much money for Christmas presents,” said Berger. “So one year, we made soap as gifts. And another year we made beeswax candles,” all on Hunter’s initiative.

Hunter, who moved to Atlanta to be closer to family in 2019, died there on June 14, 2021. She was 85.

She and her husband were devout Christians who always searched for a church with an active community. Berger’s own faith had lapsed, but Hunter invited her friend to a Bible study at a local church.

“I was used to pulling out of things, promising and then not doing them,” said Berger. “So she said, ‘you’re coming, aren’t you?’ when I told her that morning. I tried to get out of it. She said, ‘You are coming, aren’t you?’”

There was no avoiding Hunter, so Berger bundled up her youngest daughter and drove to church. Hunter and the other participants discussed the Bible in a “light-hearted, happy way.”

“It was joyful,” said Berger. Not long afterwards, she had a conversion experience.

International cause

In the mid-1970s, one of Hunter’s friends from Ohio, a Christian writer named David Redding, said that he would like to meet one of her neighbors in nearby Windsor County. Hunter asked who that might be. The man he had in mind was the internationally acclaimed Russian dissident and novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose writing had shed light on the Soviet gulag system and who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Solzhenitsyn had brought his family to Cavendish, Vt., in part to avoid the public eye.

“She took it as a challenge,” said Burtch Hunter, Rob and Judy’s older son. “She got beyond the fences and became really good friends with his wife.” Her younger son, Bridge, played with Solzhenitsyn’s four sons, and the brothers remembered attending a Russian Orthodox Easter mass that extended long past midnight.

Hunter’s sons described how she became a critical node in a correspondence network that connected Solzhenitsyn with political dissidents still in danger in the Soviet Union. Hunter suggested to Irina Alberti, the family’s secretary and interpreter, that Natalia Solzhenitsyn, the dissident’s wife, could work with the Dartmouth Area Fellowship, a Christian group active at Dartmouth, if she ever wanted a platform for her ideas.

Hunter planted the seed for what would become Natalia Solzhenitsyn’s first major public event. It took several years to go from idea to reality, but on November 30, 1978, the fellowship hosted Natalia Solzhenitsyn at the Thompson Arena where she spoke to 1,600 people, urging them to embrace their Christian duties and do more for dissidents still marooned in Russia.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn maintained his distance, but that didn’t stop Hunter. Berger remembers that Hunter even learned to make Russian bread so that he could “feel more at home.” When his birthday came, though, she sent one of her signatures: A Texas sheet cake.

In the community

Although Hunter found a role in an international cause, her local community benefited most from her boundless energy.

When Hunter became interested in the Montessori technique for her two sons, she found other parents to help her build a school from scratch. They fueled the young school with fundraisers including cookbooks that brought together the parents’ signature recipes. When needed, the teachers would stay at the Hunters’ house.

When Burtch was in high school, she took it on herself to make the dances more “desirable.” She set up a raffle that would punctuate the events with prizes. She drove to West Lebanon, straight to the McDonald’s, and asked if they had a large punch bowl that the restaurant would be willing to donate for the high school dance. She left with exactly what she came for.

Improving the dances was just one of an endless string of commitments she took on. She mothered the den of the Thetford Cub Scouts and baked an abundance of pies for the town’s Old Home Day. Every year, her sons remembered her spending “countless hours” sewing a quilt to raise money for a women’s group in Ohio.

“She went way over the top...When I think about everything, it seems exhausting,” said Burtch. “She was so involved.”

Whenever she had time, Hunter filled it. She had no formal arts training, but she got to know local artisans as she taught herself to weave, quilt and throw clay. Finding themselves on a farm, she and her husband learned to raise animals. Their lack of experience did not intimidate them. The family raised pigs, goats, chickens and even pastured a horse.

Hunter also worked at the Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction for nearly 20 years. She helped seniors start a recorder group where they could meet new friends and keep their fingers sharp, started a support group for people struggling with Parkinson’s disease, and organized lunches for men who had spent their lives working on railroads in White River Junction. Many of the programs she started decades ago are still running.

“She was very concerned about and caring about all the people who came in and wanted to make sure that they had a reason to come,” said Emily Santaw, who also worked at Bugbee. “She was a great friend, a wonderful coworker, and a wonderful person.”

Later in life, Hunter would serve as the secretary of East Thetford Baptist Church, which the Bergers and the Hunters helped start.

Friends remember how she went far beyond her duties. She took everyone else’s needs on as her own, whether that meant offering a drive or a small financial gift, or going the extra mile to connect someone with the community services that would help them.

Wherever she went, she brought along a penchant for practical jokes. A “whimsical sense of humor,” a “puckish sensibility,” “a bit of a trickster” — however her friends and family described it it, they all saw it.

“There was an old fur stool in our attic,” remembered Burtch Hunter. “And once in a while, without warning, she’d flip it into our beds.” He and his brother would wake up to the possibility that an unidentified rodent had invaded their covers.

When her sons drifted off in the grocery store, she’d make sure to call them on the PA system to embarrass them. And when Burtch forgot his lunch in high school, she would deliver it right in the middle of class when his classmates would have maximum opportunity to tease him. The family frequented Jack’s Joke Shop in Boston, where Hunter sourced itching powder that she dribbled down the shirts of her co-congregants (Burtch clarified that she was respectful and only pranked the good-humored among her neighbors).

“She loved to laugh,” Burtch said. “I love to play pranks now, and it was because of her.”’’

Later in life, she never lost her sense of humor and her sharp mind. Though she struggled with mobility problems, she never complained, and insisted on cooking meals for her church’s new pastor and kept up with all of her friends when she moved to Atlanta to be with Burtch Hunter.

“She made you feel important, (that) someone really cared about you,” said Ordway, her friend and caregiver. “And she always remembered the details about you.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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