Judith Herndon: June 5, 1941 - Nov. 20, 1980
This is generally how we as humans encapsulate the life of someone after they’re gone. Born – dash – died. It’s what happens in the middle – the dash – that really matters.
During Senator Judith Herndon’s dash here on Earth, she managed to leave a mark that stretch beyond her 39 years. Like many of my fellow Class of ’99 alumnae who just turned 40, I can tell you now that 39 years doesn’t seem nearly long enough.
For us young Mount students, Herndon was always a memory, having passed on before many of us were born. Within our halls, she was a hero – a forever young smiling face that was a model for what we as young women in West Virginia could become.
Senator. Lawyer. House Delegate. Mount graduate. Daughter. Friend. These are just some of the labels Herndon once called her own. At Vanessa’s suggestion, I took a dive into Herndon’s file at the archives to get to know Herndon a little better.
“This was no token female who had taken up a passive residence in the legislative halls, as her fellow legislators were to learn down through the years. Sen. Herndon repeatedly demonstrated a political acumen that won her the consensus evaluation of being the most effective and well-prepared legislator in the state,” Intelligencer staff writer Michael K. Zastudil noted in the paper’s November 22, 1980, edition.
After graduating from the Mount in 1959, Herndon earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Duke before entering Northwestern University and then completing her juris doctorate at West Virginia University in 1967. She wasted no time in joining her father, Richard G. Herndon, to practice law in Wheeling at his firm.
1970 saw Herndon appointed to the West Virginia House of Delegates, followed by a re-election in 1972 and then an appointment to state Senate in 1974. According to the Wheeling Hall of Fame’s induction article, “She never lost an election, although a member of a minority party. She was considered a conservative on fiscal matters but not in terms of civil liberties.”
One item on Herndon’s agenda to improve civil liberties came to a head in early 1980. State law at the time required divorced women to petition the court to restore their maiden names, something that could or could not be granted by a judge. Herndon presented a bill, which succeeded in the House but was later killed by the Senate, which would allow a woman to either keep her married name or take back her maiden name without the intercession of a judge.
“It’s a personal degradation to have to depend upon the discretion of a judge who says what you can call yourself,” Herndon told The Intelligencer at the time. “Apparently the women’s liberation movement has been getting men really bugged about it. Men automatically feel they’re being persecuted.”
That type of perseverance wasn’t lost on her fellow senate members. In an editorial published in The Princeton Times, state senator Odell H. Huffman wrote, "Had she lived, she might have been West Virginia's first woman governor, had she chosen that goal. But her destiny of service was not higher office. It was to inspire, by her example of courageous integrity, the lives of many.
"The example she set was a model of rectitude in public service. When she felt strongly about an issue, there was no fear in her. No pressure group, whether it was management, labor, public employees, public figures, or political organizations could intimidate her. Notwithstanding Senator Herndon's strong will, she was a concerned, compassionate, warm and lovely lady."
In 1988, the Mount officially dedicated the Senator Judith A. Herndon Room in the presence of her parents, extended family members, Bishop Francis B. Schulte, WV Supreme Court Justice William T. Brotherton, and many classmates and friends. The Wheeling News-Register’s Linda Comins wrote of the attendance that day that “the newly-renovated chapel at the Mount was filled to overflowing”.
Many of those who spoke during the dedication remembered Herndon in similar terms to the quotes I’ve included above, but my favorite is probably the words of Sister Mary Grace Flynn, V.H.M, who was Superior of the Visitation nuns and president of the Mount board of trustees at the time. Sr. Mary Grace noted that during the cleaning of the chapel dome during the recent renovations, signatures from former students were found on a forbidden area of the dome.
Among them was a signature left behind by Herndon, “big and bold and red”.
Were you a classmate of Judith Herndon’s? Did you have the chance to work with her or know her personally? We’d love to hear your stories on our Facebook page!