Judy Mooney: She showed us how to live

Savannah Morning News

Aug. 27, 2017


In the end it was her grip. It was strong. It was firm. She wasn’t letting go. Until the last day of her life Judy Mooney, who passed away two weeks ago, never wanted to lose that connection. It felt like a direct line to her soul. If she didn’t have the strength to talk she wanted to touch. But that makes sense. This woman was a sculptor. She could shape a nose that looks like a nose. She could catch an expression – pain, fatigue, determination, angst. She could create a gesture. She had a feel for figures from the Gullah culture. She didn’t shy away from complexity or challenge. Witness the piece she called “Rosa Parks, Back of the Bus,” multiple figures, each small, each detailed.

She could shape a mean and tasty crab cake, too, even if she didn’t eat them.

To look at the bronze and ceramic figures in her Ardsley Park living room you’d think she had been doing this her whole life. Wrong. She went from the corporate world to the artist studio, from dressing for success as the vice president of community development at the YMCA in Charlotte, to sitting behind a potter’s wheel with a glazing tong, a wooden knife, a sponge, all within arm’s length. She moved from overseeing budgets and supervising staff to organizing artist workshops at Wildacres Retreat, N.C., dealing with area galleries that still have her work and holing away in her studio.

Did she have any idea this is what she would do, that this would become her passion? I asked this question, again and again. It’s a real issue for people who jump off the treadwheel, who find themselves with time, who have to invent the day. Nope, she said. She just wanted to take some art classes. So she did – at Armstrong. Her world – and that of her husband, Pat, an able companion – turned to art. With matching pony tails, Birkenstocks and one car between them (Pat rode his bike to work), they could be seen at most openings. They were a team.

When she started undergoing treatment for cancer she cut her hair to anticipate a loss of hair that never happened. Pat cut his too. He supported her treatment; she indulged his humor.

Pat is a jokester, a jester, a listener. For years he worked as a mental health counselor at SCAD but Pat took it a step further. During exams he morphed into the Pizza Fairy, delivering boxes of pizza to the library, the dorm, the student center. He had his stock jokes. He could wiggle his ears, sing wacky birthday songs, tell a story at the drop of a hat. Judy would roll her eyes, roll with Pat.

He could ride his bike forever. When they met 35 years ago in Louisiana, neither was interested in marrying a second time. They worked on YMCA-charity rides, triathlons, fundraisers. They started training together. They started taking individually mapped week-long bike rides all over the country with friends.

To Judy, he was “Pat Mooney,” two names, first and last.

To her grandchildren, she was Meems, Pat was Bebop because he used to sing the kids to sleep but not before a tickle and a belly of laughs.

When the couple moved to Savannah they might have had 12 bikes between them, mountain bikes, tandems, racing bikes.

They continued to peddle. When Judy was about to turn 70 she decided to ride in the annual 70-mile bike ride in and around Savannah. She recruited me and others. We trained – sort of – on Sundays, riding around the base at Hunter Army Airfield, stopping for coffee at Starbuck’s at Twelve Oaks, giving one another pep talks.

And then the cancer hit. They threw everything they had at it. In between procedures Pat stuck around the house, played his guitar, supervised her supplements, quit his job (“We don’t know how long Judy will have. I want to be here”). Judy talked about getting back into the studio. People visited. Children, grandchildren, artist friends. Again and again. She made it to her 76th July birthday when no one thought she would, then to Pat’s 69th, then to their anniversary, 32 years. She went from avocados to ice cream to chips of ice. As she lost weight her blue eyes got bigger and brighter. She could still whisper, “I love you.” When someone mentioned a mutual friend’s intention to visit, she mouthed the words, “Tell her not to wait too long.”

In the last few days, her grip started to give way. She was growing weak. The connection was lessening. She could no longer hold on.

When Pat’s phone call came – “Judy has gone on to that giant sculptor studio in the sky” – I was not surprised. But I was and am sad. I still think about dropping by that living room.  I still want to hold that hand.


Looking for her shot, young, scrappy, hungry

Savannah Morning News

Aug. 19, 2017

Alijah Dorsey is young. She’s scrappy. She’s hungry. Two hundred years after the face, she’s Alexander Hamilton in drag. She has his grit, his perseverance, his desire. Lin-Manuel Miranda thought he was writing about an American founding father in his blockbuster Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” No, sir. He was writing about Alijah Dorsey. She knew it the minute she heard the lyrics from a classmate at St. Vincent’s Academy. This was her homeboy, her alter ego. Different time period. Different gender. Different race. Didn’t matter. This was her story.

Right about that time she was on a plane to California. As chair of the Chatham County Youth Commission she was headed to a National League of Cities meeting.  That’s when she decided to memorize the 1,0000-word song, “My Shot.” She was smitten with the energy, the story. It was her story.

When she got back to Savannah she acted on that energy. As the co-editor-in-chief of Pleiades, SVA’s literary magazine, she and her staff were tasked with presenting an assembly to the rest of the school. It was their job to make poetry cool and accessible. With four days to go she recruited three members of her staff and convinced them to memorize five songs from “Hamilton.” Alijah wanted the poetry to “wow” the audience. They did it.  Alijah was Hamilton. She sang “My Shot,” as in, “I’m not throwing away my shot.”

And she’s not. She’s taking her shot. But it hasn’t been easy. It’s not a slam-dunk.  As a high school senior she made the usual round of colleges. At Georgia Southern, she felt as if she were drowning. UGA? Too big. But when she visited Mercer University in Macon, “the light went off.” That’s how her mother, Amelia, saw it. “This was her niche.”

Her mother promised to help. So did her sister, Alexis, another SVA alumni. Alexis, 27, a substance abuse counselor, is a force. She has a masters from Savannah State University and is going for a doctorate.

“She’s the one who got me to go for the Youth Commission,” Alijah said, her blue SVA graduation ring catching the light.  “I wasn’t going to do it. I was too nervous. But Alexis insisted. She changed all my passwords to my phone, my computer, all my social media until I said yes. She knew I would like it.”

These three women are tight. They got through Alexis’ diagnosis with lupus when she was a high school freshman. They got through Alijah’s bout with ovarian cancer when she was 10 “when all the doctors told me it was because she was overweight,” her mother said. “But I didn’t buy it. I kept changing doctors. it turned out she had a tumor the size of a softball.”

They knew college was expensive, especially Mercer. Her mother, a teacher who has worked at a family day care center for decades, promised to help. “We gonna do this,” she said. “You set the goal. I’ll help you get there.”

Alijah, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA average, applied for early acceptance to Mercer. When she got deferred she tried again. And again. Three times. She got in. She got a partial scholarship from the Center for Collaborative Journalism. She and her future roommates met on line. They picked the colors for their dorm room. They decided who would bring what. All was set. Then her mother ran into a glitch. A bureaucratic glitch. The money she thought was there was not. Time was – and is – running out. They needed $4,000. Classes start Aug. 22.

Alijah, calm, determined, rational sat her mother down and said she was going to ask for money through an online GoFundMe campaign. Her mother, who doesn’t like telling house business, protested. Alijah said, “Mom. We’re broke. You’re going to have to put your pride aside.”

In six days the fund raised nearly $2,000 from 39 people, much of it in $25 and $50 increments (“She will persist,” wrote one), much of from SVA alumni, faculty and classmates of Alijah, “girls that know of you but don’t really know you,” said Alijah. “That touched my heart. They gave me hope. Money, yes, but hope too. I can’t repay that.”

“When St. Vincent’s speaks of a sisterhood they mean it,” said Alijah’s mother. “It’s a family and it starts the minute you walk through the door.”

Alijah, optimistic and focused, wants to be a journalist. She already had a front page story on the Savannah Tribune. She wants to “make people feel stuff. I feel I have a responsibility to tell people what’s happening. I want to make a difference.” She’s convincing without being heavy-handed.

She even got her mother to come around to “Hamilton.” They were driving to a poetry competition in McRae, Ga., where Alijah was performing “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou and Tony Hoagland’s “Personal” when all they could find on the radio was static. That’s when Alijah, who listens to classical music when she studies, popped in “Hamilton.” By the time they got there her mother was singing along.

“And I’m not throwing away my shot/I am not throwing away my shot/Hey yo, I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry…”