Judith Blake OAM 1929 - 2004
Judith was born in the Murray Mallee in the days when drought in the mallee meant drifting sand and sheep clinging to life on a diet of mallee leaves. After seven years at the one-teacher school conducted in the Parilla North community hall, she left home to continue her education, never to live with her family again. She took with her the strength and presence of her mother and the integrity and generosity of her father. She quickly developed the personal independence and strength that characterised her life.
Judith put great value on common sense. It was her measure of people, regardless of status or academic qualification. No matter whether she spoke to an archbishop, a politician, or a member of a local committee, she was the same Judith - forthright and intolerant of a lack of common sense.
When, at age 12, Judith went to live with her grandparents at Smithfield, she developed a determined independence that became characteristic of her. I don't know what is inherited and what is learned, but she certainly took with her the strength and presence of her mother, and the integrity and generosity of her father. So she always stood out in the crowd.
In 1945, after 3 years at Gawler High School, Judith took an office job in the city with McIntosh and Martin, a firm of chartered accountants. She boarded with a lady in Mitcham and, having adopted the Presbyterian faith of her grandparents, attended Hawthorn Presbyterian Church. The following years were, with the guidance of Rev Frank Engel, formative of her commitment to ecumenism and of her leadership skills. She became active in both the Presbyterian Fellowship of Australia (the Presbyterian youth fellowship) and in ecumenical youth events. She eventually served as State president and National secretary of the PFA.
Judith's ecumenical involvement gave her many friends. Among them were Nancy and Ivan Hull. For many years they were her second family and she became honorary aunt to their children. In 1958, Ivan (as Secretary for the Committee for the Promotion of Christian Union) and Judith (as President of the Presbyterian Fellowship of Australia in South Australia), with the aid of Nancy and her teapot, wrote a major report "One in Christ, Mission Hope" for the South Australian Christian Youth Council. It was a document ahead of its time then, and perhaps it still is.
She immersed herself in youth camps and travelled to interstate conventions that gave her a sure feeling for the church as a profound world-wide movement. Her extraordinary skill of giving people a sense of the richness beyond their local community was formed in this time. Judith always had a broad vision.
Her father was concerned about Judith walking home along dark streets after meetings, and he bought her a car. It was a green Austin A30. That little car, known as 'Princess Ann" to Judith's friends, travelled widely and provoked some pranks. It was once hidden in a tent by some friends.
In the early 1950's, Judith worked for the Pharmacy Board that gave accreditation to pharmacy degree programs. During this time she attended a YWCA Leaders' Club developed by Florence Christian, and become an active member of the YWCA. In 1959 she joined the staff of the Adelaide "Y" as Finance Secretary, beginning a career that was to last for the remainder of her working life. It was with the "Y" that Judith developed the leadership skills enabling her to make remarkable contributions to the communities in which she worked. Her contributions to the "Y" were to be made at state, national and international levels. It gave her wonderful friendships scattered around the nation and the world.
I remember going to visit Judith in the "Y" at Pennington Terrace, North Adelaide, while I was a university student. I also remember standing on street corners for the "Y" on badge day and being told that the trouble with me was that while I knew many things I had no common sense. She would give a verbal box around the ears to people she loved. Showing affection was not her way, perhaps a result of fending for herself for so long. Her many friendships that were based on mutual love and respect never overtly expressed were often to perplex onlookers in later years.
Nevertheless, her affection was real. It was a unique kind of affection arising out of her strength of personality. Her kindness to friends, colleagues and strangers was a blessing to many. Her affection for, and pride in, her family, especially her nieces and nephews and their families, was intense.
Judith became heavily involved in organising "Y" club work. In 1964 she was appointed Extension Department Secretary, and in 1965 she was asked to move to Elizabeth to establish YWCA work in that new and growing community. She drew on the leadership experience that the church had already provided, and her remarkable capacity for bold and innovative community work emerged. As she immersed herself in the joys and sorrows of a community for which privilege was a stranger, her sense of a struggle for justice grew and became a personal mission.
At Elizabeth, for the first time in her life, Judith had a home of her own. It was Flat 50, "Cambridge", 3 Phillip Highway. She greatly enjoyed setting it up and having the things she loved around her. It must be admitted, however, that housekeeping was never assigned any priority relative to her real interests.
One of Judith's close 'Y' friends was Kath Edwards. They had met at a PFA conference in Perth, and it was Judith who recruited Kath into the 'Y' in Adelaide. Kath later served as President of the 'Y' in Victoria and as National Vice President. Kath and her husband Keith were another family for Judith. She and Kath were like sisters, sharing shopping trips, overseas trips and confidences.
Then, in 1970, she moved to Whyalla as Executive Director of the YWCA, a position she held until her retirement in 1995. This was the period of her life in which her extraordinary leadership skills reached their impressive maturity. In the contexts of the "Y" and the church she dedicated her considerable energy to a community experiencing pain as the steel industry went through a crisis. She stuck with them when she might have left. Through her participation in the life of the "Y" and the church at all levels, she connected her people to the nation and the world. She enlarged their world.
There where two notable initiatives that Judith made in Whyalla. She obtained funding to purchase a large caravan and a Chrysler Valiant station wagon to tow it. The caravan became a mobile centre for women's groups, and it travelled all over the city to wherever women wished to meet. Her other notable initiative was to establish the Elouera Women's Shelter (Elouera is an Aboriginal word of welcome), the first accommodation offering haven from domestic violence for South Australian women outside of Adelaide.
She served the Uniting Church as a delegate to the national Assembly, as a member of the Council of Synod, and as a delegate to Eyre Presbytery. Throughout her life Judith was an active lay preacher. I don't recall that I ever heard her preach, but I imagine that she spoke of a Jesus who changed communities and empowered people, a practical bloke with common sense who brought a vision of God's time in our midst. Sorting through Judith's things, we found evidence of possibly her first and certainly her last sermon. The former is a Hawthorn Church news sheet for May, 1956, reporting a youth service when "Judith Blake's sermon was helpful to all present" and the latter a card of thanks from the Watervale congregation for her visit made in 2004 when she was already quite ill.
Her contributions to the Whyalla and wider communities were legion. She chaired the Edward John Eyre High School Council. She was involved with SACOSS, Amnesty International, Soroptimist International, the Migrant and Ethnic Community Centre, and the Community Health Standing Committee of the Whyalla Hospital. She coordinated the Rural Student Accommodation Program, participated in founding of the Migrant Women's Support and Accommodation Service, participated in a review of health issues in the Iron Triangle, and was a member of a State Government review of the operation of women's shelters. She worked tirelessly for migrant women and the victims of domestic violence.
In all of this, Judith put great value on common sense. It was her measure of people, regardless of status or academic qualification. No matter whether she spoke to an archbishop, a politician, or a member of a local committee, she was the same Judith - forthright and intolerant of a lack of common sense.
In 1972, two years after moving to Whyalla, Judith made the first of her five overseas trips. The purpose of the trip was to attend an intensive YWCA Training Institute program at Crét Berard in Switzerland. Before going to Switzerland she spent 10 days in the north of England undertaking a preparatory study project in a run-down industrial area. This trip had a profound impact on Judith and she made new friendships that she maintained for the rest of her life.
In 1979 she visited England again before participating in the visitors' program at the World YWCA council meeting in Athens. In 1983 she attended the World YWCA Council meeting in Singapore, this time as a delegate. After the meeting she had a brief holiday in Hong Kong that included a day trip into China.
While still at Whyalla, Judith became ill and in hospital diabetes was diagnosed. She subsequently managed this condition with careful diet and regular injections of insulin. This became the motivation for another of her campaigns - to badger cafes and restaurants to make diabetic food available. Whenever we took her to a café, she would ask if diabetic jam was available to have on scones, whether she wanted any or not.
Judith's outstanding achievements were widely recognized. In 1984 she received the Whyalla Australia Day Citizen Award. In 1988 she received the Medal of the Order of Australia and it was a proud mother and brother who accompanied Judith to Government House for the presentation. She received life membership of the YWCA of Australia in 1989 and of the Adelaide YWCA in 2003. In 1994 she was awarded the Flinders University Suffrage Centenary Chancellor's Medal. In 1997 the YWCA of Australia presented Judith with a brooch especially crafted by a silver smith in recognition of her long service as a staff member. It is a beautiful piece in the form of a stylised "Y" triangle perforated with stars in the form of the Southern Cross.
Upon retirement, Judith took up residence in Swift Court, Northfield. It was a rented Housing Trust unit that she obtained by drawing on the contacts she had made in the Trust during her career. She maintained her many community interests, especially in relation to justice and women's issues, and made her considerable accumulated wisdom available to many people. She relished her close friendships and began her association with Pilgrim Church, eventually chairing the Church Council. During this period she negotiated the appointment of two new ministers, achieving an outstanding result at considerable personal cost.
She filled the Swift Court unit with the artefacts of a dedicated craftswoman. She had long been a skilful knitter, making Fair Isle pullovers for many of us. Later she had interests in cross stitch and other decorative arts, and it was always difficult when travelling to get her past a craft shop.
Only once in my life have I been inside a working courtroom. John Cornwall, a Minister of the State Government, had established a committee to give him advice about funding for women's shelters. Judith was a member of the committee. A woman whose work as Administrator of a women's shelter had been severely criticised in their 1987 report had sued Cornwall and the committee on the grounds that her reputation had been damaged. The case came to trial in the Supreme Court of SA in 2002 and it was found that Dr Cornwall had acted with misfeasance, that the committee chairperson, Judith Roberts, had defamed the plaintiff in a television interview, and that several members of the committee, but not Judith, had acted with malice. Judith had to give evidence during the trial, and found this a traumatic experience so long after the events being examined. The State Government appealed against the findings and the appeal was heard in the Supreme Court by a tribunal. It was that hearing that I attended one day. Judith had asked me a number of times if I would come, and her gratitude when I did was striking. When the finding on the appeal was handed down in November, 2004, after Judith had died, The Advertiser reported the affair inaccurately on several occasions, implying that the whole committee had been found guilty of acting with malice, and thus defaming Judith. I had some futile correspondence with the newspaper.
Judith never lost her passion for the international connections that had always energized her work. In 1991 she went to Canberra as a volunteer worker at the 7th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. She never understood people who ignored the enrichment of such ecumenical interactions. In 1999 she travelled to Europe and North America to visit much loved and strategically placed friends she had met over the years at World YWCA meetings. She celebrated her 70th birthday in New York City with her dear friend Mary Ida Gardner. And in 2003 she was at the World YWCA Council meeting in Brisbane. She met many of her international friends there, including her friend Nadia from Bethlehem.
In July, 2004, Judith was taken to hospital and diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She died on 11 August, 2004, after her diabetic condition became unstable. A funeral service was held in Pilgrim Church and later, on her 75th birthday, her ashes were interred in the Dudley Park grave of her parents.
Subsequent to Judith's death, there have been several responses from the community aimed at preserving the memory of her work. Coolamon College, that offers distance theological education for the Uniting Church, has established a memorial scholarship to provide fee assistance to a female student undertaking a lay preaching course. Pilgrim Church is establishing a fund to assist young women to participate in "significant global gatherings". And several people made donations to the World YWCA in her memory. She was a rare person, a strong and remarkable woman who devoted her life to the benefit of others; a person who so identified with the trials of women in her community that her strength became their strength.
Contributions to the Judith Blake Fund can be made through the office. Contact the office or the ministers for details.