In Memoriam: Judith Rajala

This is my personal memorial of my time with friend and colleague Judith Rajala given in a way I think she would have wanted.

Judith Rajala had a fanatical devotion to three things in this world: her work, service to the education community, and, for those of us who knew her, her slavering horde of dogs, cats, and miscellaneous critters she'd rescued or raised over the years that numbered at least in the dozens--just taking into account the ones I knew about in the six years we'd been colleagues and friends. Frankly I lost count after the first few litters/broods/clutches had come into the world. She on the other hand could not only keep precise count of the little darlings, but she could name each one and, if given the slightest encouragement, recite a brief biography that included date and circumstances of birth, lineage, and personality quirks.

Judi cared for countless quadrupeds, their offspring, and their offspring's offspring. Though she didn't discriminate, she was mainly a dog person, and she kept her pack close at all times. She worked from home, and hardly a phone call would go by when the conversation wouldn't be interrupted by the frantic yips of what sounded like a thousand ravenous chihuahuas. You always knew when the mail arrived at the Rajala household!

She was also fanatically devoted to service, particularly in education, and had worked as a library media specialist and served as a school board member for 10 years in her local community of East Windsor, CT.

Those two passions would come together in the form of EduHound, a family of online sites she founded devoted to disseminating free tools for educators--lesson plans, graphics, and other resources teachers could use in their classroom instruction. Her EduHound sites ("my other dogs," as she called them) became part of the THE Journal/101 Communications/1105 Media family, and Judi along with them.

Judi had already been here 15 or 20 years when I came on as Web editor at 1105 Media in 2006. Our long-distance friendship began immediately. Before lunch on my first day, she'd given me the entire history of our group, explained all of our processes, identified the good guys and bad guys in the company, apprised me of her expectations of me, and introduced me to her pets--not one of whom, I might add, I would ever meet in person, but that wasn't important. When Judi became a part of my life, they became a part of my life.

"How many of those things do you have?"

"Well, let's see, there's [Fiona], she's the troublemaker, just like her mom. Her brother [Ford], he's the shy one. [Francis] here is the cute one...." By her descriptions, her puppies might well have been the lineup of One Direction.

Though she lived in Connecticut and I in California, she quickly became my closest colleague and my confidant. For years we were a staff of just two people running all of our sites and newsletters. We'd work together day and night. If I e-mailed her at midnight (3 a.m. her time), she'd answer within seconds. She was truly tireless and devoted, willing to pull back-to-back all-nighters in part because she truly cared about the work and in part because "somebody needs to get the work done," as she'd say. Though she wouldn't admit it, she also just really liked to show off her skills by getting things done sooner than anybody would have expected.

She ardently refused to slow down, regardless of her circumstances, lest the burden of her work be passed on to someone else. I never knew her to take vacation, except some Friday afternoons she was forced to take when she was at about triple the company's new vacation cap. She didn't really take those days off though, a fact she'd remind me of every Friday in some small, slightly passive-aggressive way:

"I'm not working today, but I'm about to send you the new newsletter template. I need you to proof it and get it back to me so I can get it finished. But I'm not working. And I'm not being passive-aggressive."

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she didn't let up. In fact, she chose to keep it a secret for a long time, working even in the waiting and recovery room during her treatment. (If you subscribed to our Smart Classroom newsletter in 2009 and 2010, you received at least one issue assembled on a laptop in a cancer treatment center.) When she scheduled her mastectomy, she and I fought about whether she'd produce our newsletters from her hospital bed. Thankfully she lost that argument, but she was back to work the next week--against everyone's protests.

Eventually, her surgery and experimental treatments put her cancer in full remission.

Before and after her breast cancer, her work here touched just about everybody, whether they knew it or not. Whatever her title--she was an "e-media coordinator," our first Sitecore administrator, newsletter producer, executive managing editor--she defined her role as helping out with everything, mostly behind the scenes, taking care of the kinds of details that people at higher pay grades generally take for granted. ("Uh, you want this launched next week? Hello? Have you told the designer about it? Have you talked with circulation? Do you have a GL code? Don't worry, I'll take care of it.")

In a loosely organized band of editors, writers, designers, production staff, circulation people, and sales and marketing staff spread thinly all around the country, she was the one who routinely made sure we didn't let anything "fall through the cracks."

She had a decisively dark and at times self-deprecating humor. For the first few years we worked together, I didn't know what she looked like because she shared absolutely no pictures of herself. She even covered up in a hoodie when we videoconferenced. We lived across the country from one-another, and neither of us would get on an airplane, so we'd never be able to meet.

When I asked her to send a picture so I could know who I was talking to, she sent me a shot of a shockingly obese woman in a g-string taken from some sort of fetish site, saying I should think of that whenever I talk to her. "It's close enough."

Her obesity became a running gag with her. Eventually, I saw an actual photo of her. When her cancer went into remission, she put a real picture of herself on Facebook. I was slightly disappointed to see that she looked nothing like what I'd been forced to picture all that time, lacking the distinguishing flesh folds and body dimples I'd come to associate with her.

She was a person who not just loved to laugh but actually required it. She wouldn't get off the phone with you unless the conversation ended in a hearty chuckle. Literally you had to stay on the line until the phone call could end in a laugh.

We'd talk for hours each day, going over projects we were working on together, coming up with new ideas, yelling, commiserating, griping at whatever cruel fate had cast us in whatever predicament we'd found ourselves in at the time--well, you know how it is. But regardless of the subject, the call always had to end on a laugh. (One time when I said I had to get off the line, it took another 45 minutes before she actually let me hang up.) It went on that way for four or five years.

At some point a couple years back, she and I had a falling out. And unfortunately for me, among Judi's many positive qualities, a short memory was not among them. We had not yet made up when, some time last year, she was again diagnosed with cancer, this time in her spine.

She chose to keep her cancer ordeal mostly to herself this time around. Whatever pain she was in, she wouldn't confide. "Everything's fine," she'd say.

In the last month of her life, it became increasingly obvious that something was very seriously wrong, but still, everything was "fine."

For the last week of her life, while everything was fine, she was in a hospital dying. Piecing together the fragmentary, third-hand information I have, toward the end Judi decided not to die in a hospital and instead chose to die at home, then changed her mind again at the last minute, worried that it would be too upsetting to her animals if they witnessed her passing. She was on the way elsewhere when she suffered a massive heart attack--apparently brought on by complications from her cancer treatment. This is how her life ended, Thursday, Jan. 17.

She said cancer would never kill her, and, technically, she was correct--"the best kind of correct," she would certainly say if she could, quoting from one of her favorite shows, Futurama.

Judi asked her family not to hold a funeral for her, undoubtedly because she didn't want to be a burden. Besides us, Judi is leaving behind her husband, David, and four kids--two daughters and two sons. I've worked with two of them and continue to work with one--the one she always referred to as "my Tommy" whenever she was bragging about him. They're smart kids, talented and adaptable, a lot like their mom. They live on the other side of the country too, and I've never seen what they look like. I haven't asked them for a picture of themselves.

For our part, we are planning to create a new annual award in her name, something that will honor outstanding, dedicated teachers and librarians, people whose work will be a credit to her memory. Burden or no burden, this I know for a fact Judi would have wanted. We'd spoken about it in the past when working on materials for our memorial Sylvia Charp Award.

She'd asked me, "Do you think our company will ever create an award in your memory?"

I responded something along the lines of, "You can't name a memorial award after someone who's never going to die. What about you?"

"An award would be awesome," she'd said. "Maybe a giant statue and a parade with floats and giant balloons too. And a national holiday."

The award is definitely a go. Our president, Wendy LaDuke, started making that happen the day we got the news about Judi. The holiday might not work out--although, if her family wanted to donate her unused vacation time, that would probably buy everyone in our company a paid day off for the next 10 years. As for the statue, I'm not too shabby with clay, and I do have a photo I could use as a model. Now if I can just find a city willing to host a life-sized sculpture of a 300-pound woman in a g-string....

Whether we knew Judi for months, years, or decades, we, her friends and co-workers, will miss her very dearly and will always be burdened by the fact that she died without us even knowing she was dying, depriving her friends of the chance to comfort and support her, depriving me of the chance to say "I'm sorry," and depriving us all of of the chance to tell her in no uncertain terms how much we appreciated her, that her life and her work had meaning, that she had a profound impact on so many of us, and that we wished to God there would never be a reason for us to name a memorial award after her.