Remembering Judith Schiff

Our "Old Yale" columnist, who died in July, was an expert at finding and divining the stories of Yale and New Haven.

Kathrin Day Lassila ’81 is the editor in chief, and Mark Alden Branch ’86 the executive editor, of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

We’ve said it before: Judith Ann Schiff was a modest, retiring, soft-spoken dynamo. She was always courteous and gentle in conversation; we can’t recall her ever raising her voice, or even showing a little irritation. Most people who didn’t know her would probably overlook her if they happened to be in a group together—until they heard what she had to say. Then she usually became the center of attention, because nobody knew more about Yale and New Haven than Judy did.

Judy died on July 11 at the age of 84. Just two weeks before, she had checked in with us about her next “Old Yale” column and told us about other projects she was working on. We at the Yale Alumni Magazine, like so many others, already miss her friendship, her enthusiasm, and her deep knowledge of Yale and New Haven.

The last official historian of Yale was George Pierson ’26, ’33PhD, Larned Professor of History, who died in 1993. By then, most Yale history professors were interested in much larger places than their own university. But Judy—who grew up in New Haven, earned a BA at Barnard and an MA in history at Columbia, and began and ended her career at Yale—was fascinated by the history that lay all over and around this city and its university. Her first job out of college was cataloguing historical papers of New Haven families in Sterling Memorial Library. She stayed on at the library, and in 1971, she became its chief research archivist, a job she kept until her death. But more than that, she came to know the history of Yale and the history of New Haven intimately. She delved into the records constantly and made it a personal mission to share her knowledge, presenting innumerable talks for alumni and serving for many years as the New Haven city historian.

In the 1980s, she started writing occasional articles for Carter Wiseman ’68, who was then editor in chief of the Yale Alumni Magazine. He had the brilliant idea of inviting her to write a regular column. “Old Yale” started in 1987, and the magazine has printed 219 of Judy’s columns since then. (Most are accessible on our website.) “It was obviously a hit,” Carter recalls. “Her column was a kind of reassuring continuity in the magazine for alumni. No matter what else is going on at Yale, they could always rely on Judy Schiff to warm their hearts.”

And Judy loved writing those pieces. They were, she said, the most gratifying work she ever did. The only difficulty was that her love for the university made it hard for her to acknowledge in print that Yale, or someone connected with Yale, might conceivably have done something wrong. In 2012, she started a column about the role of John C. Calhoun, Class of 1804, in the US declaration of war on Britain in 1812. The first draft didn’t mention his pro-slavery beliefs, but we persuaded her to include that part of Calhoun’s life.

In addition, Judy was always serving on a plethora of Yale and New Haven boards. Throughout her life, in every way she could, she disseminated her expertise and knowledge, to the great advantage of the city and the university.

Judy’s death leaves a hole in the fabric of Yale and a painful loss for her many friends and admirers. She was buried on July 15 in the Grove Street Cemetery. She rests now among many other Yale figures, with the university’s buildings standing watch.

Yale, her friends always said, was Judy’s home.

Below are remembrances by some of the people who knew Judy best.

A friend and “secret weapon”
I had the privilege of getting to know Judy and become her friend as I did research on the legacy of my favorite Yale professor, Sylvia Ardyn Boone, who died in 1993. Judy was a true stalwart in helping anyone and everyone trying to seek out information. She was my go-to person, my secret weapon as I worked on projects dealing with women at Yale, minorities at Yale, or any topic of interest.

Through that connection, I got to know what a sweetheart Judy was as a person. Early on, we shared being the only children of strong-willed mothers who had not gone to college themselves but were determined to have the best education and experiences for their daughters. For almost 30 years, we were together as TD fellows, marching annually at commencement and attending special Yale events as each other’s plus-one. We also discovered we had similar cultural interests, going to Yale Rep, the Center for British Art, opera, and lectures, and I’d sometimes stay over at her home. Judy also would join me in New York for my favorite Alvin Ailey dance performances each year, sometimes bringing her best friend since childhood, Jessie Ring. That’s how I first knew of Jessie’s children— Sara, Aaron, Danny, and Jeremy—who continued to celebrate holidays with their “Aunt Judy” after their mother’s death. They were with Judy, comforting her during her final days, functioning as her health care advocates, and making her funeral arrangements.

As Judy continued to work at age 84, well beyond the age when most folks retire, we discussed if it might be time for her to leave the library after 60 years. But I jokingly cautioned Judy that she would still be getting asked important questions and would not be willing to say “no” to providing answers for Peter Salovey, Linda Lorimer, or faculty friends. So she might as well continue to get paid for doing what she loved and enjoyed.

She lived a full and meaningful life. Judy was a strong-willed, independent woman, somewhat shy but with a wicked sense of humor. She was kindhearted and a good soul who wanted the best for everyone, whether you were a Yalie, a local New Haven community person, or someone she just met walking down the street. And I was blessed to call her my friend.

Vera Wells ’71, one of the first women in Yale College, received the Yale Medal for projects highlighting women and minorities.

How far she went

Judith Schiff’s well-deserved New York Times obituary reported she “leaves no immediate survivors.” We beg to differ: the institutions and archives she nurtured and the students and scholars whose work she nourished are her survivors.

Judy’s life was well-rooted. Born in New York City, she came to New Haven as a child and then, aside from time at Barnard, spent all her years here. Her adult years were lived downtown, and her office for six decades was in Sterling Library. Her labors in local history flowed from a love of this place.

Simultaneously, she traveled widely across time and cultures as an archivist. Moreover, the scholarly seeds Judy planted have gone across the country and around the world with generations of students and readers. She showed you can stay in one place and yet go really far in life—especially in a library.

Judy definitely has survivors, near and far. They include organizations she helped found, like New England Archivists, Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven, Ethnic Heritage Center, and Friends of Grove Street Cemetery. Most importantly, they include grateful neighbors, friends, and colleagues. That we were all three with Judy is a blessing we will cherish all our days.
William Frank Mitchell ’89MA is a New Haven–based cultural organizer. Michael J. Morand ’87, ’93MDiv, is Beinecke Library’s director of community engagement.

A sense of family
Judy was simply in a class by herself. She didn’t just work at Yale for six decades; she loved Yale for 60 years and cared for it—and so many of us.

Without question, she was the most devoted steward of Yale’s institutional history in the last half century: without fanfare, she undertook scores of oral histories of Yale leaders from the Brewster to the Levin eras, and she created, with scholarly rigor, exhibitions at Sterling Memorial Library on topics ranging from coeducation to Yale’s tercentennial.

She gave and gave of herself to individual alums—starting with me. In almost two decades as secretary of Yale, never a semester went by when I didn’t need Judy to rescue me by researching some esoteric topic about Yale’s past. These were often major detective projects—and usually with a deadline of yesterday. And a couple were herculean: Michelin was willing to publish a Green Guide of Yale for the 300th anniversary, but they had no writer—until they heard about Judy, who wrote the entire volume single-handedly. As the publication was going to the printer, I realized that she had done the final edit from her hospital bed. That is devotion!

So were her unheralded efforts for countless alumni families who contacted me when their loved one died and they needed some information about the individual’s accomplishments at Yale to use at the funeral. This may seem like a small matter, but her generosity of spirit, caring, and follow-through exemplified the sense of family that we want alums to feel about their alma mater.

What a treasure for Yale and for so many of us to have had her in our midst for so long—and to know that her legacy is enduring.

Linda Lorimer ’77JD was vice president and secretary of Yale from 1993 to 2015.

A job she loved
I had the good fortune to be both colleague and friend of Judy. To say her knowledge of Yale history, the history of New Haven, and the amazing collections in Manuscripts and Archives was encyclopedic is almost an understatement. We turned to her countless times for answers to research questions and advice on how to find the answers ourselves. She taught us about sources to support our work that we would never have thought of or known about.

Some colleagues said that sometimes when working with Judy, you felt like you were hit with a fire hose of information. Even if too much at times, you invariably ended up using the information she provided in some situation, to address a hard-to-answer question and look brilliant doing so.

Judy is the only archivist I know who had groupies because of her writings, her stature, and her approachability. Reeve Lindbergh, daughter of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, said that the name “Miss Schiff” was uttered with admiration and something akin to reverence by her parents when Reeve was growing up, and she herself became a fast friend of Judy’s.

Judy set an example for us of being good storytellers to hook people on the importance of understanding our past. Her “Old Yale” columns were incredibly popular with the university’s alumni community. Every one of them told an engaging story. She was in demand as a speaker, both locally and nationally, because she told such interesting stories about Yale, New Haven, and the persons whose history is preserved in our collections. She was particularly adept at uncovering the history of women and minorities at Yale and in New Haven and sharing their stories through exhibits, talks, columns, and book chapters. Judy never met a journalist or reporter she didn’t like. She felt they provided important outlets for her stories and served as advocates for our work as archivists.

I will always remember how much Judy loved coming to work. Every day she set the bar for enthusiasm, commitment, and engagement. She cherished and was thankful for her role in uncovering the past and the impact her work had on people’s lives. We would all be fortunate if we loved our jobs as much as Judy loved hers.  

Christine Weideman is director of Manuscripts and Archives at the Yale University Library.

Making Yale a better place

I never thought of Judy as having a larger-than-life personality. Having joined the Yale staff at a time when the ethos was about not wearing one’s heart upon one’s sleeve, Judy was a larger-than-life person because of her soft-spoken kindness and wisdom.

When I took time off to study Yale history and practically lived in the manuscripts library (as its number-one patron for a year), Judy was the north star whom I could call upon to help me explore virtually any corner of Yale.

Happening to reside in the same apartment building as her for a time, I witnessed her extraordinary devotion to her mother in the latter’s final years. For Judy’s last decades, Yale and New Haven were her life.

When I was reviewing the origins of the Yale seal for this magazine, Judy not only could rapidly direct me to the first parchments in the Yale collection that had “Urim and Thummim” impressed upon them, she often knew the provenance of their acquisition.

Her loss hits me as the end of an extraordinary and long era. If I wanted to answer the questions of “Was the first Jewish student at Yale also the first Black student at Yale?” or “Had one of the most respected politicians of the Confederacy earlier been expelled from Yale College because of homosexuality?” Judy was the one to whom I would turn. Not for the answer, but for advice on where to find the answer.

Despite living ankle-deep in trivia, what Judy accomplished was far from trivial. I look back now at what I wrote her in August 2020 upon learning that she had been named recipient of a Yale Medal: “I have no doubt that Yale is a better place, and each year continues to strive to be a better place, in no small part based on your decades of contributions of helping Yale to understand its own past better.”

Dan Oren ’79, ’84MD, is the author of Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale.

Quiet leadership
When Judy Schiff came to work at Yale there were no senior women teaching in Yale College and no women undergraduates. There were no women officers in the university. But, as Judy came to understand very quickly, women were extraordinarily important—in fact, they were among the pillars of Yale.

In her modest way, whether Judy intended to or not, she quickly became one of those Yale pillars. She taught the rest of us that understanding our history contributes to our ability to lead in the future.

As Yale changed, Judy, in her quiet way, became a leader of women. She extolled the lives of past women leaders at Yale and in New Haven and in doing so, she provided a valuable link between the city and the university.

University Towers, the oldest cooperative in the center city, was Judy’s home for most of her adult life—a building where New Haven and Yale meet. As in any place where there are close to 400 people, there are many points of view and disagreements. Judy was unique in that she was loved and respected by all, and she served longer on its board than anyone in its history.

Leadership is not always bright, loud, and aggressive. The best leadership is often quiet. Judy Schiff never even intended to become a leader; she just was a leader and that was because she was straightforward, honest, smart, and full of wisdom.

But what I will miss most about Judy is her lovely smile and her joyful sense of humor.

Henry Chauncey Jr. ’57 worked in the Yale administration from 1957 to 1981, the last ten years as secretary of the university.

Preserving cultural heritage

Over the last 20 years, Judy and I worked together on the boards of both the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven (JHS) and the Ethnic Heritage Center (EHC, an association of five ethnic historical societies). Judy was an incorporator and founder of both societies in the 1970s and 1980s. When faced with any New Haven historical question for which I could not locate sufficient information, I would call Judy Schiff. She always found the answer.

Judy served as one of the first presidents of the Jewish Historical Society, which was founded in 1976, and continued as the director of the JHS Harvey and Eleanor Ladin Archives. She contributed articles to our publications and was a regular program speaker.

When I served as president of the JHS from 2007 to 2010, Judy was one of my valued advisers. We frequently met for lunch at Yorkside Pizza, conveniently located across the street from the back entrance to Sterling Memorial Library, where she worked. Our conversations always ranged from issues of JHS and EHC business to stories about our family histories and her work at Yale. I was in awe of the breadth and depth of her knowledge about the Yale and New Haven communities. During the pandemic, Judy continued to answer our research questions while working from home. She read and commented on drafts for a new cultural heritage tour of Grand Avenue which was published this spring. Our entire community treasures the legacy Judy created and shared. We sadly mourn our loss.

Rhoda Sachs Zahler Samuel has served on the boards of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven and the Ethnic Heritage Center.

Uncovering New Haven history

I received the call about Judy’s passing while I was visiting the National Gallery of Art with New Haven friends. We were there to see our museum’s portrait of Sengbe Pieh (Cinque), the leader of the Amistad Revolt, which was included in a major exhibition. I was so sad, but then I thought, how weirdly appropriate is this? Some years ago, Judy’s research had confirmed that six Amistad captives were buried at Grove Street Cemetery, and was instrumental to efforts to have a marker installed there. At her death, she was serving on the Yale and Slavery committee.

Judy inspired me and others to dig more deeply into the city’s history to uncover the stories of women and other marginalized people and elevate their voices in our work. She was deeply interested in the city’s social history, and was still proud of a chapter she had authored 40 years ago for a seminal publication, New Haven: An Illustrated History, though she wished for the opportunity to bring it up to date.

Over the years she organized or advised on exhibits and programs at the museum and was often a requested speaker. As city historian, she was underutilized, but perhaps it was because her work at Yale consumed her time. Her appointment coincided with the museum’s 150th anniversary and the city’s 375th birthday; she was our annual meeting speaker and served as a tremendous resource as events for both celebrations were planned.

In October 2019, before COVID shut the world down, Judy organized a panel discussion, “Remembering New Haven Women: Four Centuries of Women’s History.” She invited Vera Wells and others to share their research about women—some well-known, others less so—who were buried in Grove Street Cemetery. It was wildly popular and well attended, and it spurred conversation and research that continues today. Now Judy is among those New Haven notables. I like to think she is enjoying the company of all those individuals whose histories she brought to light in her writing and her work, regaling them with details about their lives and times they may not have known themselves!

The loss of her friendship and collegiality is devastating. She was such an integral part of this city and our history. No one else has the depth and breadth of her knowledge. She is simply irreplaceable.

Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky is executive director of the New Haven Museum. 

1 comment

  • Gerard vanderleun
    Gerard vanderleun, 12:58pm September 28 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    The great minds running Yale these days, and editing its publications, obviously never read John Ruskin:

    "Of all the insolent, all the foolish persuasions that by any chance could enter and hold your empty little heart, this is the proudest and foolishest,–that you have been so much the darling of the Heavens, and favourite of the Fates, as to be born in the very nick of time, and in the punctual place, when and where pure Divine truth had been sifted from the errors of the Nations; and that your papa had been providentially disposed to buy a house in the convenient neighbourhood of the steeple under which that Immaculate and final verity would be beautifully proclaimed. Do not think it, child; it is not so."

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