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Former First Lady Carol Judge was a kind, gracious and remarkable woman who used her public role and her background as a registered nurse to help lead the push to overhaul Montana’s neglected institutions in the mid-1970s.

She died of cancer at age 73 in Helena on Dec. 7. Her funeral mass is at noon Tuesday at Cathedral of St. Helena.

As first lady, Judge successfully advocated for passage of a 1979 law to require all school children to be immunized against certain diseases. Nearly 30 years later, she joined other Montana first ladies and a legislative leader in promoting having every child immunized by age 2.

Judge, who as first lady underwent alcoholism treatment, helped spearhead changing state law in 1975 to classify alcoholism as a disease after the American Medical Association revised its position. In the 1980s, she helped launch what became a state program to help nurses with substance abuse problems.

After her divorce from Gov. Thomas L. Judge in 1980, Carol Judge left the public spotlight to raise her two sons. She got a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing in 1983 and resumed her career in nursing, along with addiction and mental health counseling, until her retirement. In all, her career in nursing and related fields exceeded 32 years.

“She was a very brave, smart woman, and she gave a lot of herself to the public interest her whole life, literally from when she was a young mother until a few years ago,” said former state Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams of Missoula.

Judge remained a long-time advocate for health care reform, public kindergarten and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

“She was a very caring, loving person who had a great understanding of the need for health care reform long before the rest of us were talking about it,” Williams said.

Carol Judge was, and remains, the youngest first lady in Montana history. She was 31 when her husband took office as governor in January 1973. Tom Judge was 38 and is still youngest governor in state history. They had two children, Thomas and Patrick.

“Tom and Carol were like Montana’s Jack and Jackie, handsome, beautiful and always well presented, with the hint of sophistication and urbanity,” wrote Lawrence K. Pettit in his book, “If You Live by the Sword: Politics and in the Making and Unmaking of a University President.” Pettit formerly was married to Carol Judge’s sister, Shari, and he managed Judge’s 1972 campaign.

On assignment as a student nurse at Warm Springs State Hospital, Carol Anderson saw first-hand the squalid, understaffed conditions. When dating Tom Judge, an up-and-coming state legislator, she took him on what was later described as “a behind-the-scenes, eye-opening tour” of the mental hospital.

A decade later as first lady, Carol Judge initially took on the traditional social obligations expected of that office then. Yet the conditions at the state institutions nagged at her.

She began traveling to the institutions and ultimately visited 12 of them, said Sidney Armstrong, an aide to Gov. Judge and the first lady who usually accompanied her.

“When she viewed those conditions that were so heart-breaking and horrendous, she knew she had to step up,” Armstrong said. “Carol was really a private person. She wasn’t looking for the limelight. She knew she had to do something.”

The first lady wrote the text for a plain, four-page yellow brochure, ‘Have a Heart: The Human Side of Boulder River School and Hospital and Warm Springs State Hospital,” distributed to legislators and others around the state. Images by photographers illustrated the drab conditions.

“Here, as in Boulder, we find a terrible shortage of staff, poor wages and inadequate housing,” she wrote of Warm Springs. “Patients are overcrowded in decaying buildings, which are impossible to keep clean, and this encourages the spread of disease. The drab and depressing surroundings lack stimulating things to do for learning, therapy and recreation.”

Spurred on by his wife, Gov. Judge pushed for an overhaul of the institutions, which succeeded with the strong backing of legislators and other groups. Budgets for institutions were greatly increased.

The state also began what was known as “deinstitutionalization,” or moving many patients out of state institutions into local community-based centers.

Some people were wary of having group homes located in their neighborhoods. To allay concerns, group home operators often invited the popular first lady to attend open houses and receptions.

“Carol played a huge role in bringing acceptance in communities for people who had previously shut away and warehoused,” Armstrong said.

At the group homes, Armstrong said they would see some of the same people they had found sitting alone on the floor at Boulder wearing ill-fitting clothes.

“We would see them in the group homes, clean and well-groomed, and they would want to take you up to their room and tell you they were going bowling tomorrow,” Armstrong said.

Tom and Carol Judge separated in the fall of 1979 and divorced in the winter of 1980, his final year in office. It was a bitter divorce.

In another compassionate act, Carol Judge traveled to Arizona to help care for her ex-husband during the final days of his life in 2006.

Charles S. Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 443-4920. His e-mail address is chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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