SANDPOINT — When she came to Lake Pend Oreille High School as a freshman, Caitlin Yarber was shy, withdrawn and a bit scared, as her previous school years had not been good to her.
So as she began her high school career at the alternative school, Yarber said she just wanted to crawl into a puddle and hide. One of her classes, however, was art with Randy Wilhelm — and the late artist, Leata Judd.
“She was just radiating happiness,” Yarber, who is now a senior at LPO, said of Judd. “Right when I walked into the room, I could tell there was a lot of happiness in here. She asked me to come over and sit by her and, instantly, everything was great.”
Judd was a constant presence as a volunteer in Wilhelm’s classroom over the past five years, so when she passed away last month at the age of 90, it was a devastating loss for the students, Wilhelm, her family and all who knew her or her artwork.
“She definitely meant a lot to the kids,” Wilhelm said. “She was just so accepting and non-judgmental.”
Judd, who is known for her whimsical papier mache and clay creations, moved to Sandpoint from Bayview in 2012 after her husband Tom passed away. She and Wilhelm initially met at an art show while she lived in Bayview, but it was after she moved to Sandpoint, living within walking distance of the school, that they really connected. Her son Jerry Judd, who lives in Sagle, said it was about this time of year because the school was holding its annual firewood raffle, and his mom purchased $200 in tickets. He remembered Wilhelm commenting that he didn’t think she even burned wood which, of course, she did not. But if she won, she said she would simply donate it. She taught at the school for a while before becoming a volunteer, Jerry Judd said.
While Judd meant a lot to the students at LPO, they meant a lot to her as well, Wilhelm said.
“She just loved the kids,” he said. “She said it was the only reason she got out of bed any more.”
Wilhelm said as he was helping Judd’s family clean her place after she died, he was given some items to give to the students, as well as art supplies for the class. So when Yarber was gifted an LPO hoodie sweatshirt that belonged to Judd, she just hugged it tight and then immediately put it on.
“It reminds me of Leata,” Yarber said, a resigned sadness evident in her words.
Ask any student at LPO who knew Judd and each one will say how much of an impact she had on their lives, because many of the students who enroll in the school have had a tough go of it. The word “inspiration” became a common theme as students talked about what she meant to them. LPO senior Leilani Henry, for example, met Judd her sophomore year. She said Judd had a “huge” impact on her because she was outgoing and always had a positive attitude.
“Leata always gave me a lot of hope that things were going to get better,” Henry said. “She never let anything drag her down. I just thought she was really inspiring, because she never gave up. She was 90 years old and she would walk from her house here every day. She just inspired me a lot.”
For Zeya Martin, also a senior at LPO, it was an emotional conversation as she had become very close to Judd over the years.
As with many of the students, Martin first connected with her as a freshman in art class, sitting with Judd every day, or even going out of her way to find Judd and say hi if she didn’t see her in class. One day, they came up with an idea that she could clean Judd’s house, giving them an opportunity to visit outside of school as well. Then they discovered a connection with Martin’s grandma who owns an art gallery in Priest Lake, as Judd has some of her work in the gallery.
At the beginning of this school year, Judd found it difficult to walk to the school as she had done over the years, so Martin started picking her up and taking her home each day. She would often give Martin gifts and, just a couple weeks before she died, the pair sat down to play with a set of tarot cards that Martin said Judd had made many years ago.
“And she gave them to me, which was so neat and really meant a lot,” she said, adding that Judd gave all of the students who knew her a different perspective. “It is just so inspiring, seeing her art and how she was still doing it and loved it. They see Randy’s art and are inspired by him, but then another person who is taking the time out of their day to do it is super inspiring for the students.”
Another LPO teen, X Peck, knew Judd outside of school as well — his grandma is Daris Judd, Jerry Judd’s wife. Peck said he remembers going to his grandma’s house when she lived on the hill above Judd’s farm in Bayview. He would walk down the trail and visit with Judd and her husband, and recalled how she would hide the fairy houses she made all over the property. She would tell him that if the fairies stopped by, they would have a place to rest.
“She had her art everywhere, and she made a big impact on the school,” Peck said. “A lot of people were inspired by her.”
Daris and Jerry Judd also recalled the artwork that Judd would hide over the years.
“In our driveway, she had made some little clay faces and put them in the bank, and we didn’t even notice it for the longest time,” Jerry Judd said.
And she loved fairies, the couple said. For her and Tom Judd’s 60th anniversary, Leata Judd spent a full year planning the party. She made around 100 fairy houses and fairies, creating a fairyland along the creek that ran through her Bayview farm. Daris and Jerry Judd said it was to keep the kids occupied, and when the party was over, every child got to pick out a fairy house to take home with them.
Another time, for Thanksgiving, Leata Judd packed some terracotta clay around a turkey and baked it on a really low temperature for 24 hours, the couple said. Only a clay artist would think of such a thing, Jerry Judd said.
“And It was so delicious,” Daris Judd said. “She made the clay look like a turkey — it was so cute … She loved family and she loved gathering people. She would have neighborhood parties; she was a hostess. We’d have New Year’s Eve parties, Sunday morning we would have brunches. She just liked gathering people, and she gathered a lot of wayward people — I was one of them.”
Growing up in California, where they lived before moving to Bayview in the early 1980s, Jerry Judd said he and his three siblings were always surrounded by their mom’s art. Her father was a clay artist, so she grew up around art as well.
With Halloween coming up, Daris Judd said her husband had been telling her the other morning how she would turn their childhood home into a haunted house for the kids in the neighborhood. Halloween was one of her favorites, and this year she helped make many of the props for the Zombie Nest, a haunted house in Ponderay that opened this weekend.
The haunted house is a fundraiser for some of the current and former LPO students who will be taking a trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City this summer — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of them. Much of the artwork she has sold in the past year or so, in fact, has been to raise money for the students to take the trip.
While LPO was where she dedicated her final years, she was also a Kaleidoscope volunteer at Southside Elementary for many years, which inspired Daris Judd, who is also an artist, to do so as well. The program is through the Pend Oreille Arts Council, providing monthly hands-on art lessons to Bonner County students in grades three through six.
Leata Judd was also honored as a Woman of Wisdom in 2016, and the Festival at Sandpoint artist in 2017. She was one of the founding members of the Northwest Artists Co-op in Coeur d’Alene and a founding member and president for a time of Art Works in Sandpoint.
The couple shared some comments with the Daily Bee written by Judd’s daughter, Jodie (Judd) Gow, who said her mom was adored for her generous nature, and how she was so giving of her talents and her time until the day she died. She celebrated her 90th birthday with family and friends this summer, which had been a goal of hers, as she always expressed how much she loved her family and the friends who became her family.
“Her last years were spent volunteering at the nearby school, first teaching and then just joining in on every art class. We are forever grateful; it gave her so much to live for as she really cared for those kids,” Gow wrote. “She is missed every day so very much. Her laugh was legendary, and we all appreciate what she did for us — what a mom.”
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.