Short and sweet tribute to an iconic Peoria philanthropist whose life was long on love
PEORIA — Judy Oakford’s obituary would have been quite long had it included a list of all the philanthropic work she did over the course of her 88 years, but she didn’t want that.
Judy left specific instructions — keep the obituary short and sweet, said her family. Judy’s philanthropic endeavors were not about getting accolades — they were inspired by her love of people.
“She’d come home from a meeting somewhere and she’d say, ‘I met the neatest person today,’" said Art Oakford, Judy’s husband of 68 years. “She just loved people — she collected people. She would tell me, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I invited so-and-so for Thanksgiving dinner. They didn’t have anybody to have dinner with.’ I think the most we ever had for Thanksgiving was 52 people. We had people on card tables and in bedrooms all over the house.”
A philanthropic family
Born in 1934, Judy came from a family devoted to philanthropy. In 1954, she married into a family also known for community service. Art’s grandfather, who founded a grocery wholesale business in 1868, started Neighborhood House in the late 1800s.
“My grandmother was on that board for many years, then my mother was on the board for many years, and Judy was on that board till the end,” said Art. “There‘s always been a family member on the Neighborhood House board.”
Over the years there weren’t many local endeavors Judy wasn’t involved in. In a 2016 interview with Peoria Magazine, Judy said she was most proud of co-founding, with Diane Cullinan Oberhelman, Kids Konnected, a support group for children whose parents have cancer.
Another notable effort by both Judy and Art was the creation of a network of mental health services in central Illinois. They helped found Fayette Companies, Human Service Center, and White Oaks, a treatment center for people with substance use disorder.
“Mental health was one of Judy’s early interests. Before Zeller, she started a program called Crystal’s Gifts for Forgotten Patients at the old Peoria State Hospital,” said Art. “She would go out there and they would give her a list of people who hadn’t had visitors of any kind for a year or so, and they collected money and bought ties and books and handkerchiefs, and I don’t know what all, so that everybody got something for Christmas.”
While most people get interested in various causes because of issues with a loved one, there was no particular reason for Judy to become interested in mental health issues, said Art.
“I think she just saw an opportunity to help people,” he said.
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A perfect storm
Art and Judy began dating when a friend set them up to attend a New Year's Eve party together. That led to a long and happy marriage during which they raised four daughters in Judy’s family home on Moss Avenue. Just two months before Judy’s death, the pair moved from a large condo into a two-bedroom apartment in Lutheran Hillside Village.
While Art, at 91 years old, is still spry enough to go on long bike rides, Judy had been slowed down by back pain, said her husband. Still, Judy’s unexpected death took everyone by surprise. The pair had gone out to visit friends on Christmas Eve, but came home early because Judy wasn’t feeling well.
“When we got up on Christmas morning her breathing was very short and raspy, so I called 911,” said Art. “When we got to the hospital, they told us she was a very sick lady. She had pneumonia in her right lung as well as influenza A, and then they later found an infection in her spinal cord.”
Judy's temperature rose to almost 105 degrees while her doctors tried everything to stabilize her condition. She died shortly after 5 a.m. on Dec. 26.
"I think it was a perfect storm while she was sleeping on Christmas Eve night," said Judy's daughter Betsy Hamilton.
Judy's memorial service Jan. 4 was very well attended.
“The church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, was full. The altar is in the middle, and the whole church, both sides were full,” said Hamilton, who was grateful for all the memories shared by her mother’s many friends.
“I cherished what each person said about what Mom meant to them. And they were from every walk of life, whether it was a beautician, someone from the Red Cross, but every person that came through, they wanted to tell you what Judy meant to them. And that was priceless.”
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Leslie Renken can be reached at (309) 370-5087 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.