Judy Sartell of Janesville remembered as friend of rich, poor alike

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

— Don Sartell has tears in his eyes as he remembers how the renowned film producer and director Cecil B. DeMille greeted Sartell’s wife, Judy.

In the mid-1950s, DeMille was in the middle of shooting “The Ten Commandments.” He walked into the commissary at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. Judy and Don were seated at a table with Jesse Lasky, one of the founding fathers of Hollywood’s motion picture industry. DeMille walked over to Judy, gently took her hand and politely kissed her palm.

“Everyone watched with envy,” Don said.

Don was Lasky’s right-hand assistant for awhile. Through his work in Hollywood, Judy got to know some of the most famous people of their day.

Actor Bob Hope stopped filming a movie scene once to bring her a chair and to sit down beside her.

Actor James Cagney offered friendly conversation.

Jack Foreman, head of Warner Hollywood Studios, enjoyed spending time with Judy.

Her ties with the rich and famous did not end with Hollywood.

Basketball coach and TV analyst Al McGuire used to ride his motorcycle to visit Judy and Don, and baseball great Joe DiMaggio once sent Judy into a tizzy when he called to say he was stopping by.

When 83-year-old Judy of Janesville died May 28, she called pop singer Bobby Vinton and his wife, Dolly, among her closest friends. They sent a huge display of roses to her funeral June 3 at Rock Prairie United Presbyterian Church, east of Janesville. Once, during a Las Vegas show, Vinton stopped to introduce Judy as “My best friend.”

During the years, Judy also cared for aging relatives.

“She was such a people person,” said Don, her husband of 60 years. “She loved everyone alike. She did not have an egotistical bone in her body.”

Three weeks after her death, sympathy cards still pour in, layering Don’s kitchen table with envelopes full of kind words and treasured memories.

“I can hardly keep up with opening them,” Don said. “Some people are just finding out about her death.”

Judy graduated from Janesville High School in 1948 and married Don in 1953. Her lifelong passions involved both people and animals.

For 50 years, Judy volunteered with Mercy Hospital’s auxiliary.

“She cared about her patients,” said Marie Bilek, director of volunteers. “She was at her best in our surgery waiting area. She was the type who engaged with all people in the room. She was so genuine, and she cared so deeply.”

Bilek said she didn’t know anyone who worked longer or harder for the volunteer association.

“Judy served in every capacity possible,” Bilek said. “She was a wonderful mentor to me. Because of Judy, we also bought many elephant items for the gift shop.”

Judy loved elephants, and the Sartells for almost 20 years made hefty donations to Riddle’s Elephant Breeding Farm and Wildlife Sanctuary in Greenbrier, Ark.

“They were the first people to ever make a financial donation of any substance,” said Scott Riddle of the internationally recognized sanctuary.

The 330-acre site accepts any elephant regardless of species or disposition.

When the Sartells made the first donation in 1994, the private sanctuary was “getting desperate” financially, Riddle recalled.

For years, Judy displayed a colorful picture created by one of the elephants with a natural talent for painting with a brush. The creative pachyderm used brilliant primary colors, which brightened a shelf in Judy’s bedroom.

Riddle often talked to Judy for hours by phone.

“She asked questions about each elephant and its personality, just like talking about your children,” Riddle said. “She was so interested. Her desire was always to come and see the elephants and to get to know them personally, but she never had a chance to do it because her health got in the way.”

In recent years, Judy had been getting dialysis three times a week, and spinal stenosis curtailed her activities. In her final days, she had a heart attack, two major operations and was on life support.

Judy’s spirit will live on in Riddle.

“She was a genuine person,” he said. “I’ve been around for a long time and have met a lot of counterfeit people. The world can ill afford to lose people like Judy. She was an easy person to love.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

Last updated: 7:51 am Monday, July 29, 2013

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