Judy Ross

She was a small woman, quiet and unassuming. Her voice was gentle and lilting, wavering as she talked. She taught music and composed music, providing works for commissions that came from around the country. And, from time to time, she went to jail.

If you met Judy, you might have had a hard time believing this dear, sweet, elderly woman, the archetype of a grandmother, would ever be sleeping on a concrete bench in the Anderson County Jail in Clinton, Tennessee. Not once, but many times.

It wasn’t a case of Arsenic and Old Lace. It was a case of Judy v. the Bomb. When she learned that nuclear weapons were being manufactured at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, her reaction was typical. Really?

The atypical part, though, was that she didn’t stop there. Building nuclear weapons that threaten all life on Earth was not acceptable to Judy, and she would not be remembered as someone who saw the threat and walked away from it. Instead, she joined OREPA activists again and again in actions at the Bomb plant, arrested for blocking the entrance to Y-12. That gave her a chance to educate the judge and everyone in the courtroom, and eventually the women she met in the jail.

She also had a lively sense of humor. She emerged from jail one time and declared she had been well taken care of. “I had a room all to myself!” she marveled. “Judy!” we said, teasing her, “Solitary confinement!”

Judy leaving court in Anderson County

On another occasion several women were being held together in the transport cell—concrete floor, walls, and benches, and a light that stayed on 24 hours. When dinner came, Judy wrapped her small piece of chocolate cake in a napkin, and later the women played poker with cards fashioned from napkins. Judy’s dessert was the prize to be claimed. When she won the card game she began to celebrate her good fortune, then stopped and reflected, “Why am I celebrating winning the cake? It was my cake to begin with!” Then she divided it up among her fellow detainees.

The judge determined he would stop the civil disobedience actions by locking people up — first for 48 hours, then 5 days, then longer. It didn’t work. Judy simply shrugged and accepted whatever sentence was handed down. Her convenience was not a consideration—the planet was at risk.

Most actions, Judy was accompanied by younger activists who were following her lead—she inspired not with stirring orations, but with simple action.

Outside the courtroom with co-defendants

Sometimes getting arrested took time—waiting while others were processed before getting stuffed into a police cruiser for the trip to jail. Judy carried a plastic lawn chair on her left arm as she approached the barriers. When the waiting began, she had a ready seat. Journalists flocked to the white-haired doyenne who held court from the plastic chair.

Bring your own chair… this might take a while

On another occasion, the action involved setting up a home in the middle of the street, complete with furniture. In the end, Judy and Ron Dale, another octogenarian, were left in the middle of East Bear Creek Road, the sofa they occupied blocking the entrance to the bomb plant. They waved, Judy flashing peace signs, to the crowd assembled on the side of the road. Bishop Tom Gumbleton visited with them and offered his blessing in the middle of the road.

Bishop Gumbleton stops by Judy and Ron’s house at the Bomb Plant

Judy’s commitment to peace and justice never waned, even as her body started requiring her to slow down. She was delighted—and delightful—when she received a Peacemaker Award from OREPA several years ago. In June of this year, when family and friends gathered to celebrate her 100th birthday, she asked OREPA’s coordinator to join the festivities and make a brief presentation.

Celebrating Peacemakers

Before we ever met Judy, she had lived a full life and reached a point when most people are retired and easing their way into the sunset. She was just getting her second wind, though, and set her sights on eliminating nuclear weapons. Beneath the little-old-lady appearance was a steely determination to do everything she could, until her last breath, to save the world from itself. And she did just that.

Rest in peace, Judy.

Resources:

Sunday Vigil at Y-12 in Oak Ridge Tennessee

Sunday Vigil

OREPA has held Sunday vigils every week for more than 22 years at the main entrance to the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex (intersection of Scarboro Rd and East Bear Creek Road) at 5:00pm ET. We are outdoors and space our chairs; when covid numbers are up, we encourage people to wear masks. Bring your own chair, we have some umbrellas for sun shade or rain.

Learn More »
Where Should I park? vigil-map.jpg

Please Share!

Facebook
Twitter
LinkedIn