Remembering a Loyal and Loving Leader

Posted 03.18.2024

The picture that accompanies this post will forever be my reminder that life is about savoring the moment. It was taken just shy of three months ago during the first Christmas we spent in our new home in Durham, NC. The woman in the center of the picture with the look of pure joy on her face is my mom, Judy Eblin. She’s framed by her grandsons and their life partners, Andy and Donna on her right, and Brad and Renee on her left.

That would be the last picture I took of the five of them as my mom passed away suddenly about a month ago on February 21.

I’ve been writing about leaders and leadership for more than 20 years. Most people probably wouldn’t think of my mom as a leader. She never held big, prominent roles in large organizations. She hated speaking in public. She shunned the spotlight. But, if you believe leadership is setting an example for others to follow, my mom was a leader.

There are many words that can be used to describe Judy Eblin: wife, mother, daughter, grandmother, friend, partner, caregiver, and citizen all come to mind. The two words that underlie all the roles she played in her life are loyal and loving. No one was more loyal and loving to her husband, family, friends, and community than my mom. Throughout her life, she consistently did the work of caring for her family, friends, and community through her words and actions. Her loyalty and love extended to the very last hours of her life.

Judy was born in Huntington, West Virginia on June 20, 1936, and carried her deep love of her hometown in her heart for the rest of her life. She was the proud and loving daughter of Lt. Col Arthur F. Stewart and Gladys Chapman Stewart, known to Mom and countless others as Bur. When Art was deployed with the West Virginia National Guard in the years before, during, and after World War II, Bur and Judy loaded all their belongings in the trunk of a Buick to follow him to Army bases around the country. They always returned to Huntington.

It was there that Judy met the love of her life, Jack Eblin, at age 14 at a meeting of the youth fellowship at First Methodist Church. They were together ever after through their high school years, their years at Marshall University and then on to Northwestern University in Chicago where Dad earned his degree in dentistry and Mom earned hers in dental hygiene. They were married in 1957 and, following graduation from Northwestern, spent two years in Charleston, South Carolina where Jack served as a Navy dentist on the USS Everglades and Judy was a supportive Navy wife. If you look at the pictures from back then, you can tell how much fun and adventure they had in Charleston with their Navy buddies forming experiences they talked about for the rest of their lives. Like Jack’s training cruises to support what he jokingly called the War for Bermuda or the time a hurricane hit Charleston and a pregnant Judy sheltered in the bathroom while her husband was at sea on the Everglades experiencing 45-degree rolls in the storm.

With all that youthful energy and optimism and a new baby in tow – that would have been me – Judy and Jack returned to Huntington in 1962 and together took on the challenge of establishing a dental practice that would last for another 44 years until they retired in 2006. Judy was the dental hygienist in the early years of the practice and managed its business matters throughout. My brother, Steve and I had amazing childhoods thanks to Mom and Dad. Building a dental practice from scratch was a high risk undertaking that required a lot of belief in each other. They rarely let us see them sweat.

At the same time, Judy established herself as a pillar of the Huntington community as an active participant and leader in her church and countless community service organizations. One of her hallmarks was encouraging and cheering on her friends in their endeavors, especially when they were working to better her hometown.

She was also a sneaky good athlete. In her heyday, she was quite the golfer and regularly (and happily) beat the rest of the family in weekend outings. I’ve said for years that the four of us had our biggest family arguments on Sunday afternoons playing golf. Mom was a better golfer than all of us (and way, way better than me) and it turns out that young teenage boys don’t particularly like getting beat like a drum by their mom and have her trying to give them lessons while she does it. Go figure.

Until literally the last day of her life, Mom was the loyalist of friends. Steve and I still remember how much love and time she invested in the families of kids who lost parents in the Marshall plane crash in 1970. Later, she was the one who made sure Bur’s old friends were cared for in their last years. In her own later years, she had a list of lifelong friends that she checked in on regularly.

The foundation of and first priority in Mom’s life was the family to whom she was loyal and loving beyond measure. She and Dad were married for 62 years until his passing in 2019 and were known throughout Huntington as an inseparable pair. You hardly ever heard one mentioned without the other – Jack and Judy were a package deal.  Steve and I both married wonderful women, Rhonda and Diane respectively, in 1987 and our wives both feel like daughters to Judy and not just daughters-in-law. My mom and dad were the over-the-moon Nana and Grandad to our sons Andy and Brad. It was one of the great thrills of Mom’s last years to get to know and spend time with Andy’s and Brad’s life partners, Donna and Renee. She moved from Huntington to Durham, North Carolina in December 2022 to be closer to her kids – Diane and me three minutes away from her apartment in Durham and Steve and Rhonda close by in Asheboro.

And family was the focus of Mom’s last night on earth. In celebration of Steve’s 60th birthday, she insisted on taking the four of us out for a celebratory dinner at a restaurant appropriately named Nana’s. She had planned the evening for weeks and made sure that we started with a champagne toast to Steve at her apartment. As I passed out the filled glasses, I asked her to remain standing so we could clink them on the toast. Then, with no warning, I said to her, “You birthed him, you toast him.” Without missing a beat, she looked Steve, who is famously punctual, straight in the eyes, raised her glass and said, “To my son, who was born on his due date, and has been on time ever since.” Pretty great toast.

We made the 10-minute drive together to Nana’s and over two hours shared drinks, delicious food, scrumptious deserts, conversation, and laughs. As she had made clear she would, Mom signed for the check, and we all headed home not realizing that by the time we got back to her apartment she would soon be heading to her eternal home and reunion with Dad and all the family and friends who passed before her. She never regained consciousness after the stroke she had on the way home from dinner and Steve and I were with her when she passed peacefully early the next morning at Duke Hospital.

Because our mom loved her family so much, she always struggled with goodbyes. When we all lived in different cities, if she was leaving from a visit with us or we were leaving from visiting her in Huntington, she was pretty much guaranteed to cry on your shoulder. There were so many blessings in the way she passed last month but perhaps the biggest is she didn’t have to say goodbye. And we’re blessed with not just the memory of that last evening, but by the indelible example of loyalty and love that our mom set for us.

So, here’s one more toast to a life very well lived, that of a loyal and loving leader, our mom, Judy Stewart Eblin.

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