The original soccer mom: Gwen Judkins relishes her seat in the bleachers
SALT LAKE CITY — When Gwen Judkins signed her children up for just about any and every athletic competition available, she didn’t do it because she saw them as future superstars.
Decades before the term soccer mom was coined, Judkins made sure her eight children were able to participate in whatever activity interested them simply because it brought them joy.
“I just saw they had fun playing,” said the 78-year-old Salt Lake woman. “They just enjoyed being together. That was a lot of it, the friendship.”
That decision, she said, made her a better mom.
Her children — four boys and four girls — believe her love of sports offered them better opportunities.
But it wasn’t just that she managed to accommodate the activity schedules of eight active children. It was more about how she managed it.
“Both my parents encouraged me, but my mother was the one who got us everywhere,” said her oldest child, BYU head women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins, who, like his youngest brother Jon Judkins, made a career out of sports coaching college basketball. Jon is the head men’s basketball coach at Dixie State University.
Jeff still marvels at what his mother was able to juggle — pointing out that when he was playing at the University of Utah, he had two brothers playing basketball at Highland High, and another playing Bantam basketball for junior high students. Neither of his parents missed any of his college games.
“Tuesday and Friday were high school games,” he said. “We played Thursday and Saturday and Jon (the youngest) played on Monday and Wednesday. My mom has seen more games than anybody.”
Jon said his mother got to know his friends — and the friends of all of his siblings so well that it's often the first question he's asked when he sees old acquaintances.
"The first things out of their mouths is, 'How is Gweny doing?'" said Jon Judkins. "She knew every one of our friends, and it was kind of fun."
Grandma Gwen, as she’s now known, wasn’t just a chauffeur or a cheerleader. She found a way to connect to the entire team while giving her own children something meaningful.
“Those bleachers, I felt like I lived there,” she said laughing. “I always kept score. When they quit playing ball, I gave them the scorebooks. I thoroughly enjoyed knowing the players.”
She said keeping stats during baseball and basketball games helped her get to know all of the players and their contributions to the team.
She became a reliable source of information — even for players on opposing teams, who would often ask her for their stats after games.
“One of the biggest things my mom did, she kept stats in the game because she got nervous,” Jeff said. “Instead of sitting there worrying about everything, she kept stats. She kept rebounds, assists, shots, fouls, sometimes she was more accurate than the (official) scorekeepers.” She did not keep score so she could boast about her boys.
“My mom was never into bragging,” said Jeff. “She was very low key. Both her and my dad used to tell us, ‘You never have to tell anybody you’re good; they’ll know you’re good.’ That stuck with me.”
In fact, Jeff goes so far as to guess his mother really never cared about spectacular performances.
“She never did say, ‘Oh, you scored 25 points!’ ” said Jeff. “What mattered is that her team won and that everybody felt like they were part of it.”
Understanding the importance of everyone is something Gwen’s oldest daughter highlights as one of the most important lessons her mother taught her.
“She taught us that everyone mattered,” said Jodi Judkins Aird. “It didn’t matter where you were in status on the team, in a job, or as a friend. Everyone should be treated well. She noticed everybody. When she went to a game, she didn’t just see Jeff or my other brothers, she’d see everybody.”
Gwen Peterson met and married Bary Judkins at BYU in 1954. Bary, or BJ as he was known, was a talented athlete who owned state records in track for decades. He finished his education at the U. and then joined his brother in the family business — Judkins Brothers.
“My dad had the state record in the 100-yard dash for a number of years,” said Jeff. “He ran in 10 seconds flat on a dirt track.”
Bary may have had the athletic ability, but it was Gwen who had the energy to make sure her children capitalized on it.
Not only did Gwen, whose only opportunities to play came in P.E. classes, sign the boys up for basketball, baseball and football leagues, she took them to any opportunity to play just about anything. One day she took her three oldest boys — Jeff, Jerry and Jay, along with her nephew, Danny Varanes, to a punt, pass and kick contest at the old baseball field — Dirk’s Field.
They were all competing and in different age categories and they all won their divisions.
“She’d take us to the old Deseret Gym, drop us off and we’d be there all day playing pick up with all of these old guys,” said Jeff. “She was the one who dragged us everywhere.”
Gwen’s ability to juggle church callings for the LDS Church, volunteer duties with various leagues and general mothering and transportation duties was tested when she and Bary decided to divorce in 1979. Jeff was playing for the Boston Celtics and Jerry, Jay and Jon were in college and/or married. But Jodi was a junior when her parents separated and recalls how difficult it was for her mom.
“It was hard because in her day, no one got divorced,” said Aird, now 51. “It took a lot of courage to get divorced. She taught me to have courage and strength. Some people were mean, kind of judgmental, saying, ‘Just stay and tough it out.’ My mom wasn’t that kind. She taught me to be myself and do what you think is right.”
Jeff said he believes his dad got “wrapped up in work and mom got wrapped up in us.”
Gwen said she never discussed her decision to divorce in detail with her children. She said she went to counseling and hoped they might work things out, but that eventually she believed it best for both of them “to move on” separate from each other. They remained friendly, and while Bary remarried, Gwen never did. Bary passed away in 2005 after battling lung cancer.
Both Jodi and Jeff said there were financial implications after the divorce, including the fact that their mom and the four youngest children moved from their beautiful home on Wasatch Boulevard to a duplex they’d purchased as an investment above Foothill. Gwen still lives in that duplex, and when she talks about the adjustments of single parenthood, she has a way of making it sound like a fantastic opportunity.
She didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself, and why would she? She still had her busy schedule, including church callings and sporting events.
“I had to watch what I lived on,” Gwen said, smiling and shrugging as she tried to recall the difficulties. “I didn’t go to work for the first little while, I just did odd jobs at home. I worked for my boys at Judkins Brothers and I worked for a dentist. It was important for me to be at their games. It was different, I guess. But it was a good change.”
Both Jeff and Jodi said one of the most important lessons their mother taught them was the value of hard work.
“She taught us not so much to be the best, but to do your best,” said Jodi. “Whether it’s a church calling, school, a game, whatever, just do your best. And sometimes your best isn’t the best on the team.”
“My mom was a really hard worker, and she was so positive,” said Jeff. “She always thought her boys were the best no matter what. My mom was very giving of her time and her talents. And last, but not least, she never had an agenda. She just did what she could to help.”
Jon said what he appreciated most about his mom was her constant support and encouragement.
"She would come to everything," he said with a laugh. "And she had eight kids. She’d go to every game, sometimes they were overlapping, but she'd be running from this place to that place I have four kids, and I don't know how she did it. She’d go everywhere to support us and that always meant a lot to me."
Jeff said he never saw his mother show her suffering until she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997.
“I’ve never seen my mom, in my whole life, be in bed, ever,” said Jeff. “Chemo put her down to where she had to lay in bed. She was a very strong woman; she never got sick. When this happened, it was really hard because we were not used to that.”
Gwen Judkins had a mastectomy four days after her diagnosis, which came on Jodi’s birthday. She said she was sad and self-conscious about her hair loss until one day in church she was asked to introduce herself. She whipped off the cap a friend had knitted for her and said, “This is who I am. My hair is going to look funny sometimes, but I’m just grateful to have hair.”
Upbeat and energetic, Gwen also taught her children that being organized would help them take full advantage of every moment life would offer them.
“We had to with eight kids,” said Jodi, who accompanied her mom to her brothers' games, even setting up a concession stand, with her mom’s help, when she was 8 so she could earn her own money. “And with that, she taught us to value time — our time and other people’s time. When you say you’re going to do it, you do it; and when you say you’re going to be somewhere, you’re there. Respect others that way.”
Gwen Judkins can’t stop smiling as she looks at pictures of her children, and the closest she comes to bragging is when she shows off a picture of Jon and the Dixie State basketball team after they’d won the region title.
She wonders what her life would have been like if she’d been able to play all the games she’s watched her children and grandchildren enjoy. But then she just drifts off into a moment of gratitude that she’s been lucky enough to watch her children and grandchildren enjoy so many magical moments.
“Sports helps you to see life out there — the hurt, disappointment, people don’t get what they want. I think it helped me to understand a lot of things,” she said. “I just loved being there. I just really loved the people.”
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