One week ago, the world lost a very special woman named Marion Judge – one of the most extraordinary people I have ever been privileged to know and to call friend. . . . and someone whose life story sounds like something from a screenplay.
She was born in the United States 90 years ago to parents who had just moved here from Germany – but tragically, Marion’s father was killed (struck by a train) a few short months after she was born. Heartbroken, Marion’s mother decided to return to Germany with her infant daughter, and that’s where Marion grew up under the gathering storm clouds of Nazism. She eventually married and gave birth to three daughters – but then suffered through the terrible danger and depravation of the Second World War. (She lived most of the war in a small village where food and other goods were very scarce, so she would often walk miles into Berlin to secure food for herself and her family.) Eventually, the Russian army swept through the region and took control- and Russian soldiers actually lived in the house- and Marion (by now divorced) and her young daughters were forced to live in the basement, fearing for their lives but ultimately surviving the war. Realizing that still more terrible suffering was ahead, Marion made the courageous decision to reclaim her American citizenship and move back to the United States to secure a better and safer life for herself and for her daughters. She did so even though she was a single mother who did not speak a word of English. But with fierce determination, she did just that – working two jobs to give her three daughters a remarkably good life.
For the rest of her life, Marion would never forget the humanitarian aid from America’s Red Cross and other agencies which helped to keep her and other innocent German civilians alive. That gratitude led Marion to tireless work on behalf of D.A.N.K. – the German-American National Congress – which existed to foster increased friendship between Americans and Germans, and to help German- Americans cherish their own culture and traditions. Marion was also one of the key people in establishing Kenosha’s relationship with its German sister city, Wolfenbuttel. No one worked harder to make visitors from there welcome in her new hometown.
The reason I knew Marion was because for many years she hosted a program on WGTD called “The German Hour.” Airing Sunday afternoons at 1:00, this was a program in which Marion would play German music, announce events of interest to the German-Americans of Kenosha/ Racine, and bring special, individualized birthday greetings to German Americans in the community (carefully picking music that she knew each birthday recipient would especially appreciate.) When I started at the station in 1986, general manager Gary Vaillancourt engineered Marion’s program, but from time to time I would substitute for him, which is when I first got to know this good-humored, warm-hearted woman. Eventually, Gary asked me to take over those engineering duties, which I was delighted to do. And that was when we became fast friends. Marion was so much fun (always brimming with great stories about her daughters as well as her grandchildren) but also someone who had a very strong sense of right and wrong and who could be fiercely formidable when she needed to be. I still vividly remember the day when she was feeling terribly frustrated with someone at the radio station – and at one point she said “if a**holes could fly, he’d be a jet.” Somehow you never expect a 77-year-old woman to speak in such graphic terms, which is why I laughed my head off – and all these years later, the thought of that still makes me chuckle. But it also reminds me that Marion had an uncanny ability to figure out what made a given person tick- and was especially adept at seeing right through a person’s carefully constructed facade. I’ve never met anyone aside from my mom who was a more discerning judge of people’s character. But make no mistake- Marion spent far more time laughing and making others laugh than she did rapping people’s knuckles- although she could do that, too, when necessary.
Obviously, the bravest things Marion did in her life dated back to World War Two- but I got to see her at her most courageous the week that we recorded her final episode of The German Hour. Marion’s program had always done extremely well in our on-air fundraisers (typically the amount of money raised from listeners would be second only a Prairie Home Companion) so we knew that it had an audience that was more than willing to support the show. But in a move that still makes me shake my head in wonderment, our general manager at the time (and let me let you in on a little secret: he’s the “jet” referred to in the aforementioned phrase) decided that the German Hour was serving a very limited audience and should be taken off the air. . . which meant that Marion’s next episode was also going to be her last – and after almost twenty years of doing the program, the thought of having to end the show was absolutely heartbreaking. But somehow Marion found a way to muscle her way through that final program – shedding tears only at the very very end of the hour. It remains one of the most impressive acts of courage I’ve ever seen with my own eyes.
All kinds of things bring Marion to mind for me – including the music of Wagner, which she loved. But something that I especially cherish looks like a piece of simple concrete. In fact, it is a piece of the Berlin Wall – and I am so touched first of all just to have such an artifact. But maybe even more so is the fact that it was given to me by such a wonderful woman, who I came to admire as much as anyone I’ve ever known. And what I admire more than anything is that out of suffering which most of us can scarcely even imagine, Marion came through to the other side as a vibrant, compassionate, joyous person – – – glad every day to be alive.
And I was glad to know her!