Judy Liersch had a colorful childhood, growing up in Montréal with her parents and two younger sisters. As the second largest French-speaking city after Paris, only about 15 percent of the population was English. Judy’s family was English, but she learned to speak French and attended the same all-girls private school her mother had 25 years earlier. “We were very free and independent,” she remembers. “We grew up in a time where we could be turned loose after school and on weekends and my mother could say, ‘be back before dark.’”
After high school, Judy’s parents wanted her to experience life beyond Montréal and encouraged her to apply to other colleges, not only McGill University — but with one condition: no further than 500 miles away. Determined to attend a co-ed university, Judy settled on Cornell, where she majored in cultural anthropology.
During her last semester of college, Judy had a stroke of good luck on a family vacation when she met a man who was a senior manager at IBM. He told Judy to give him a call when she graduated, and she did just that, arriving at IBM’s Wall Street sales office in 1957. Trained as a Systems Service Girl, Judy wired control panels for the accounting machines used by stock brokerage firms and programmed one of the first commercial computers, the IBM Random Access Method of Accounting and Control (RAMAC).
After a couple of years, Judy decided to get back to her anthropology interests. Her former academic advisor, a Japanese specialist, suggested looking into a teaching job in Japan. She applied to the Canadian Academy (a former missionary school) in Kobe but there were no openings for the upcoming school year — they suggested she try again the following year. She did, and was offered a position teaching second grade. Judy left from Seattle on an old Japanese ship with a two-week voyage ahead of her. Along the way, she befriended two other teachers heading to her school and a Japanese-Canadian artist, who became a life-long friend.
Judy arrived in Japan in 1959. Her K-12 boarding/day school served children from the international community in Kobe — Chinese, Korean, and English — all who spoke at least English and Japanese. While Judy wasn’t really fluent in Japanese, she learned enough to get by, traveling far and wide in her time there. “The exchange rate back then was 360 Yen to the dollar,” Judy says. “We would go to the Japanese Travel Bureau and ask what ryokan accommodations they had available for 500 Yen, which included dinner and breakfast. We hit a lot of the major sights like Kyoto, Shiga Kogen (skiing), Hiroshima, and the island of Kyushu.” Judy’s mother came to visit the summer after her first year in Japan.
“Years later I learned that my father had dispatched her to make sure that I came home,” she laughs. After another school year, Judy returned to New York City and worked at a small publishing firm. Not long after, she transitioned into a job at Time Inc. as a picture researcher. The catch, however, was that the position was in Time’s Montréal office. Judy gladly accepted the job with the stipulation that Time would eventually bring her back to New York. After a few years, Time made good on its promise, and Judy came back to New York as a computer programmer. Although she had experience in first generation computers, she had to be retrained in the third generation, with a unique specialty – typesetting and hyphenation.
“Remember that Time Magazine has very narrow columns,” Judy says. “Twenty-five percent of the lines have to be hyphenated. The computer system wasn’t very sophisticated and it had a fairly high hyphenation error rate.” So, Judy was assigned to develop an improved system that reduced the hyphenation error rate by building a dictionary of correctly hyphenated words. As a result, only new words had to be flagged in the copy editing process, improving the accuracy rate from 93 to 99 percent.
In 1971, Judy was accepted to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. In a class of 300, she was one of 19 women. While there, Judy was fascinated by a new program in public management and quickly decided this was the career for her. She was later offered a job with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and after gaining her U.S. citizenship, Judy arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1973 — at the height of the Nixon Administration’s Watergate scandal and the OPEC oil crisis.
At the end of Judy’s six-year stint in Washington, she had worked in five different government offices, including OMB, the Federal Energy Office, the Federal Energy Administration, the Energy Research and Development Administration, and the Department of Energy (DOE). “I was changing offices, bosses, or programs constantly,” she says.
In 1979, the DOE had appointed a new director of its national laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The laboratory was not only hiring, but keen on hiring women managers. Judy interviewed and landed the job of Assistant Director for Government Relations. “While I had the right experience in Washington, this turned out to be a very hard job for two reasons – I was a woman and I was not a scientist,” Judy says. She stuck it out for four years and then transitioned into a line management job where she was in charge of publishing operations, the library, and museum.
At Los Alamos, Judy shared a wall with the Chief Financial Officer/Controller, who apparently wrote very loudly, and often, on his blackboard. One time while he was traveling, Judy decided to replace it with a white board. She left a message on it that read, “Confucius say he who have loud blackboard need quiet white board.” The CFO’s name? Allen Jennings.
Judy and Allen married in 1988. After more than 12 years living in Sante Fe and working at Los Alamos, the two retired in 1992. They returned to Washington, D.C., for three years, where they explored the city, reconnected with friends, and traveled to places like China, Egypt, Peru, and South Africa. After a few years back in New Mexico, Judy and Allen wintered in Venice, Florida, and eventually relocated full-time to Nokomis.
The couple moved into Plymouth Harbor in 2011. Today, Judy and Allen enjoy staying active in the community and spending their summers at their condo in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Judy is a longtime supporter of the Women’s Resource Center, the Sarasota Orchestra, and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Within Plymouth Harbor, she is a member of the program and dining committees and has been actively involved with the annual Committee Fair. She and Esther Jensen also reach out to local artists and select those who exhibit in the Mezzanine Gallery.