Who takes four years of high school Latin? The only person I’ve ever known to do that was my sister, Judy. She was the favorite of her teacher, Miss Dossee, whose class she also attended for four years of English. Miss Dossee, who was known to regale her classes with readings from Beowulf – in old world Gaelic, was a stickler for excellence. No, perfection. Judy did not let her down, and for her efforts, received straight As. That presented something of a dilemma for me when I arrived in Miss Dossee’s Latin (one year) and English classes. She seemed to sense that I was not in the same league as my sister, and I did not disappoint her.
I was a decent student, all college prep classes, but like most high school freshmen, was not an accomplished writer – at least by Miss Dossee standards. So when time came for my first term paper, I enlisted my sister, Judy – a battle tested veteran of the Dossee Wars. I submitted for her review a masterpiece of about 10 pages. I knew she’f find a few errors and perhaps have a couple of ideas on improving the almost perfect work. When I got back the “edited” copy, my eyes popped out. “What did you do to my paper,” I wailed? “I corrected it,” was the reply with a slight smile - to Miss Dossee’s standards. There was no paper – only a sea of red ink: markings, symbols, crossed-out words and comments. “But there’s only about one page now and I need ten,” I moaned. “Yes,” she gently chided, “but it’s one meaningful page. What you had was ten pages of rambling, repetitious, poorly worded, grammatically incorrect junk. Now go do some research and write nine more pages like the first one.”
I don’t recall the grade I received, but I know it wasn’t the “F” I would have gotten. From that point on, I never wrote anything without getting Judy’s critical – but honest and professional – review. Fifty years later, when I got into the writing and publishing business, I would still run things by my sister once in a while. And I was still learning.
Growing Up in Santa Clara
Judy was the eldest of five, so she was the trailblazer and the example to follow – and it was not an easy path. She was pretty, popular, smart, and kind. She could have been a snob but she was just the opposite. She had many friends, also pretty and smart, but she was the one who would seek out the homely girl, the loner or the awkward one, and befriend her. She would defiantly stand up for anyone who was an underdog, or picked on, or made fun of. She was a natural leader, and that role would follow her through life.
Our family was a pretty traditional “Beaver Cleaver” kind of family – I was "Wally," and my brother David was “the Beaver.” Dinners were anything but quiet, and there were always friends, family or strangers joining. We would talk politics, argue, debate – and laugh. Judy, true to form, would always defend the needy, the poor, the underprivileged and the meek. I was proud to be her little brother – and her understudy in life. As I grew older, on into college, Judy and I would stay up late at night drinking soft drinks first, later coffee, talking and debating philosophical issues. She had a way of opening both my mind and my heart.
We grew up in the 1950s and 60s in Santa Clara, California – and like all kids, music and dancing defined much our youthful years. Both Judy and the next oldest, Joanie (now Elizabeth – it’s a long story), loved to dance. They would dance with each other, but a better practice dummy was their brother – me. They would teach me all the latest steps, and as a result, I became a pretty good dancer. To this day, I get asked to dance by the wives of many friends – the ones who didn’t grow up with sisters!
The Semas family never needed a reason to celebrate. It didn’t take a holiday to get the “gang” gathered around the piano singing patriotic songs or old-time Rock and Roll. Judy was the main pianist and she could play anything. She played the piano, along with many other instruments, “by ear.” She hardly took a lesson. She would have you sing a few notes, do a little finger tapping for the right key, and then launch into playing. As in so many things, she was amazing. The laughter, the singing, the love among friends, family and strangers fills my heart still, as I remember.
Judy was a cheerleader in high school and it was her senior year. She was popular, an “A” student, fun and friendly – and her girlfriends were “babes!” I was in the 8th grade, and star-struck by those “older women,” especially Marcia Loboa! It was the end of the school year, and a graduation dance was held for us soon-to-be freshmen. The guests of honor were the Santa Clara High School cheerleaders – yes, Anita Warburton, Shirley Smith, Judy… and Marcia. Well they did a few cheers to get us all fired up and excited to be SCH Panthers. And then it happened. The music started and the cheerleaders all reached out for a partner and started things off. I looked up and there was Marcia Loboa… reaching for my hand. “C’mon Lenny… dance with me.” I had never been so grateful for those dancing lessons!
College Years and Off to Work
I entered high school and Judy went off to college. She was in the first full four-year class of women at Santa Clara University, previously an all men’s college. It wasn’t easy being a “coed” in those days at SCU. The men had been used to going to class unshaven and in bathrobes and some didn’t much like the addition of women. Judy and her friends accepted the challenge, and gradually won them over, and perhaps civilized them as well. My sister was not one to run head-on into things. She was too smart for that. She would appeal to reason, intellect, kindness, and fairness – the kinds of qualities that would make her a natural leader in the business years to come. Of course, a pretty face and a disarming smile didn’t hurt.
Judy didn’t finish at Santa Clara. I think she was overqualified and sensed she was ready for the business world. Many others would agree. She had worked for our dad as a kid, and in law offices, and similar administrative jobs. She was a quick study – and typed 120 words per minute. She started her first “real” job as an administrative assistant to the President of Stanford Bank in Palo Alto. Not surprisingly, her boss noticed her considerable talent and it wasn’t long before she was promoted to Bank Cashier, an officer of the bank. Later, Stanford was acquired by Union Bank and Judy moved upward to become their Corporate Personnel Officer.
Judy’s next “career” would take her to the public sector, and she was hired by the legendary Don Von Raesfeld, the city manager for the City of Santa Clara. "Don Von," as he was called, was a highly competent and dedicated manager. He expected the best and hired the best. He hired Judy as the city’s personnel manager, and she exceeded even Don’s demanding expectations. This was a time when Santa Clara was rapidly morphing from a sleepy orchard town into the world’s Silicon Valley. Judy was a trusted aid to the man who masterminded much of Santa Clara’s phenomenal growth and success. The current building of the San Francisco 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara took root in the planning of that era. Don occupied his position for decades – he was “Mr. Santa Clara.” When it came time for him to finally step down, he had only once choice for his successor – Judy Semas.
But Judy had another challenge calling her – this time in the non-profit world. Her lifelong defense of the “little people” would reach a zenith in her work with Hope Rehabilitative Services. Hope was a non-profit organization that worked with developmentally disabled individuals of all ages, helping them develop life skills for independent living. Judy was a classic “teach a man to fish” kind of person. She was not a fan of welfare; she believed in helping people to help themselves. That is where dignity and self-esteem came from, in her mind. She was hired at Hope as a “temp” – a Kelly Girl. The organization was foundering when she came on board, and she set about solving problems and setting agendas and making things happen. The Board of Directors noticed her, and within 6 months, she was made CEO of Hope. Judy guided the growth of Hope to a $15 million, Bay Area-wide organization that was highly respected for its work with the disabled. She started a foundation, and created a well- funded vehicle to further Hope’s goals. The board she assembled had three things in common: they were very philanthropic, they were widely respected, and they loved Judy. They served because she asked them to.
Judy’s work would be recognized far beyond Santa Clara, to the White House, where she was appointed to the President’s Committee for the Employment of the Disabled. Her long trail of successes in the community would be further recognized as she received commendations from the City, State and U.S. Congress. She had succeeded in everything she had done, in the private, public and non-profit sectors. Now she was free to follow her passion.
Following the Dream
I’m pretty sure that Miss Dossee was the inspiration for Judy’s passion for writing, just as she, and Miss Dossee, were the inspiration for mine. It would be some years before I acted on that passion, but Judy was ready. As with all she did, she was professional, organized and dedicated to excellence. She took writing classes (she could have taught them), she joined writing clubs, and she submitted pieces with a vengeance. She adopted her pen name of Judith Harkham Semas and her career as a freelancer blossomed. We talked at times of how exciting it would be to move to England and live in a cottage in a small town once occupied by Boswell, or Locke, or even the Bard himself, at Stratford-on Avon. We were both Anglophiles, one of so many traits we shared in common.
Over the next 16-years, Judy worked as a ghost writer, editor, and author. She produced over 600 features and had articles published in over 200 magazines. She wrote for politicians, businesses, trade publications and newspapers. Among her clients were Investor’s Business Daily, Business Week, and the Christian Science Monitor. She was hired as the Business Writer for the San Francisco Business Times. Despite these tremendous accomplishments, she never got around to the one dream of writing a novel. When I did get to writing my book, she again helped me edit and provided her ideas. She was not envious, she was proud. What she may not have known is that I could have never done it without her.
I graduated from Santa Clara University – the first in my family to graduate from college. It should have been Judy, but she was not angry or envious. She was proud. I served in the U.S. Army as an officer, and when I came home in uniform, she was proud. I could sense the feeling as she looked at me that she knew she was in part responsible for my achievement. She had no idea just how true that was. The only time I think I really let her down was when I entered high school and she went off to college. As a generational passing of the torch, she entrusted to me her stamp collection. That collection was a labor of love that she painstakingly put together over many years and she lovingly put it in my hands. Alas, I was a stupid young boy. I had no idea of the trust and love that that gift represented. A couple of years later, I sold it to buy my first car. When she found out some time later that I had sold it, she was crushed – and I felt a sense of betrayal like I had never known, or have known since. I would do anything to have that stamp collection back today.
Judy left my life, along with the rest of my family and thousands of friends, on July 29. I’m at peace though, knowing that when she departed, I was forgiven. That’s the kind of person she was.
I remember my sister, Judy, in wonderful ways; in ways she touched and brought beauty to so many lives, especially mine. I will always remember the gifts she gave to me: she taught me to dance, she taught me to think, she taught me to write, and she taught me to care. I can think of no gifts as precious as those.
I love you Judy, so please don’t edit this too harshly – and whatever you do, don’t show it to Miss Dossee.