*This article was first published in her Magazine-a publication of the Ledger-Enquirer.
There’s an art to being a Southern Woman. It takes a strong-willed woman to know when and where to use which God-given attribute and Judy Thomas is an expert in that area. A retired teacher, a retired California teacher advocate, former Chief-of-Staff for Mayor Wetherington, and sitting city-wide Councilor (among other things), Judy Thomas is a natural-born leader who gives the credit to her mother. “My mother was a leader. My mother was always the president of whatever organization she was in. It was a natural kind of thing for her, you become a member of your professional organization – whatever that is, you become active, and next thing you know…” She starts to laugh. “Next thing you know, you’re in charge.”
A teacher in Columbus for six years at Bibb Elementary, Judy was active in the local and state Teacher’s Association here in Georgia. In 1972, there were sixty-three schools in Columbus. Of those sixty-three schools, there were three female principles. They had all been principals for about thirty years. “It just didn’t seem to me that there was a lot of upward mobility in school administration at the time. During that same period, the Georgia Teacher’s Association expanded their staff and offered me a position because I had been very active in the organization and I took it.” Through that, she met people from all over the country and when the California Teacher’s Association expanded their staff, they reached out to Judy and she took that job. “At the time, I was single, footloose and fancy free and I thought ‘Why not?’. Two weeks later, I picked up and moved to California. I didn’t know a soul. My job was in Santa Rosa. I didn’t know where any of the people I had met lived or where their towns were in relation to mine.” Judy was three weeks away from her thirtieth birthday when she made her cross-country trek. She arrived six months before the collective bargaining law went into effect and was able to set precedence for the law. She describes her thirty years in California as invigorating. From organizing and working teacher strikes, to being involved in state politics, to training teachers, Judy worked hard in the most gorgeous locations California has to offer. But, she always kept her Columbus connections. “My mother gave me a subscription to the Ledger-Enquirer that was mailed to me, but when it came online, I read it there. And every Sunday night at 6pm my time, 9pm Eastern time, I called my parents. No matter what we were in the middle of, we made time for that call.”
Fast forward to Memorial Day weekend, 2006, and Judy moved back to Columbus. Because she had kept up with the happenings at home, Judy was aware that then Police Chief Jim Wetherington was running for Mayor. If you know Judy, you know that “retirement” isn’t really her thing. Always busy, always involved, her original idea was to volunteer a few times a week for the campaign. But after a few conversations with her long time friend, Chief Wetherington soon had her in the campaign office everyday. One time, and one time only, he mentioned to her that he would like for her to go downtown with him to the Mayor’s office if he won. Judy brushed him off and he never mentioned it to her again. But she would hear him saying to others throughout the day “Well, when we win and Judy is my Chief of Staff…” And so it was. “I think that Jim Wetherington is the finest man I have ever known, bar none. It was wonderful working for him. I remember a woman coming into the campaign office to ask for a sign and she said the reason that she was supporting Chief Wetherington was because after her son had been shot and killed while he was robbing a convenience store, Chief Wetherington came to the hospital to see her, not because her son had committed a crime, but because she was a mother who had lost a child.” Chief Wetherington became Mayor Wetherington and Judy went to work for him in the Mayor’s office downtown. “He took me with him to speaking engagements, he brought me into meetings, and I felt like he valued my opinion.” Mayor Wetherington was fairly vocal from the beginning that he would only serve one term and when then City Councilor Wayne Anthony announced his run for Mayor in 2010, his seat was vacant, opening the door for Judy to run for office. “I was so encouraged by friends and family, I thought ‘I can do this’. It’s one of the things I am so grateful for from my parents, they always told all three of us ‘You can do this’-whatever ‘it’ was.”
In all of her successes, Judy says that her “filters”, or how she sees life,whether as a woman, a southern woman, a middle child, a teacher, a Methodist, a Rotarian, shape how she handles each situation that comes her way. “I pick my battles. Some things are more important to me than others. There are some things people would be surprised about if they knew how I really felt about them. One of the filters as a southern woman is that you can be the Steel Magnolia. One of my heroes is Dixie on Designing Women. I don’t think she went looking for trouble, but she found it and she took care of what was going on. If I had to pick a role model, that is who I would want to be when I grow up.”
Judy Thomas doesn’t have to take a very deep inward look to find the “Dixie” in herself and neither does the city of Columbus. Her bi-weekly appearance on City Council is a documentation of her ability to “take care of what is going on.” “I know it looks like I ask a lot of questions. And I do. Sometimes I already know the answers, sometimes they are questions others have asked me about, but I try to remember that just because I got an email with the answer to my question, doesn’t mean that the person watching us on television knows the answer. A lot of times, I am not asking questions because I am questioning the administration, I’m asking for information. Sometimes, I am the one lone dissenting vote, and I’m ok with that because we need to make sure it’s clear that not everyone is for whatever it is we are voting on.”
One thing is clear, Judy is an advocate for her community. She is a natural-born leader. She is real and what you see is what you get. Her strong-willed, can-do attitude is a dynamic force in whatever she sets out to do and it is what draws people to her. Dixie Carter may be Judy’s role model, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Judy Thomas is a role model for many a woman, whether they are southern or not.