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Those We Lost: Jude Ebbinghaus

Groton — Judith “Jude” Ebbinghaus always knew how to turn negatives into positives.

Jude, a gifted educator and Groton City resident who loved volunteering in her community, overcame a lot of obstacles in her life and turned them into opportunities to help other people, said her husband, Charlie Ebbinghaus.

“She is just a very giving, a very loving person,” he said.

Jude, 69, died on Feb. 15 from complications due to COVID-19. Over the course of her life, she touched the lives of thousands of children and adults, Charlie said.

When she was younger Jude struggled with reading, but turned that struggle into a passion for helping people learn to read. She started out as an elementary school teacher and became a reading specialist for Groton Public Schools, working individually with children struggling to learn, Charlie said.

When she was pregnant with her second daughter, she developed ulcerative colitis and a year later had surgery and lived with an ostomy bag. She kept working and became an advocate for people with ostomies, Charlie said. She and her daughter, Cheryl, who also developed ulcerative colitis and underwent the same surgery, helped set up a youth network for the United Ostomy Associations of America and worked as counselors at a youth rally camp for children with illnesses.

“She never really let her illnesses or anything set her back,” Charlie, who was a research chemist at Pfizer for nearly 36 years, said of his wife. “She later developed arthritis and was a cancer survivor but it didn’t stop her. She kept fighting, kept teaching.”

Jude also was passionate about volunteering at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, where their younger daughter was a patient, he said. She was active in several church groups and taught Catechism classes to first graders. She also ran summer reading programs at local libraries and was a Girl Scout leader.

She participated in a quilting group that made quilts and blankets for the homeless and children facing illness. At the start of the pandemic, Jude made hundreds of masks for workers and schoolchildren in Groton. Prior to the pandemic, Jude and Charlie brought their therapy dogs to visit with people at Fairview once a week.

Jude also loved to travel, visiting places such as Ireland, Scotland and Myanmar, he said,

As the K-12 language arts coordinator for Groton Public Schools, Debbie West was training administrators and teachers when she met Jude, who was working as a reading specialist, in the late 1990s. West said Jude was the first person to volunteer to teach a new parent literacy course, which made such a difference in the lives of many parents and children.

When Jude went into a room to coach teachers on reading strategies, she put them right at ease and worked alongside them, West said. Even outside the classroom, Jude asked West if she could borrow some books so she could help adults in the community learn how to read on her own time.

West said Jude, a proponent of social justice, felt reading was the key to unlock success in the lives of so many people and would constantly give of herself and her heart.

“She was just a selfless person,” West said. After Jude retired she volunteered every week in West’s classroom at Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School.

Last spring, West and Kate Comment, reading specialist at Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School, helped nominate Jude to be inducted into the Groton Educators Hall of Fame. Jude was inducted into the Hall of Fame, but the ceremony was postponed to this spring due to the pandemic, Comment said.

The nominating essay highlights Jude’s more than 40-year educational career in which she “wore many hats: classroom teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, literacy specialist, curriculum developer, and parent literacy trainer.” The essay praises her “high degree of professionalism” and calls her a “champion for those in need” who exudes “endless kindness.”

Her older daughter, Alycia Ebbinghaus-Owens, recalls a touching moment when she was at a grocery store with her mother and a former student remembered her mother and that she taught him how to read. The teenager was with a group of friends and each friend introduced themselves to her mother and shook her hand.

Alycia said her mother had empathy for students facing literacy challenges and found a common bond with her younger daughter in dedicating themselves to advocacy to help others facing illness.

“My mom never let either of us give up,” Alycia said. “ She was always saying things happen for a reason.”

Even with her health challenges, Jude saw opportunities to learn from those challenges and share the hardship and strength, rather than hide from them, Alycia added.

Alycia said Jude wanted people to see the best in themselves and feel empowered and she didn’t want whatever challenges they were facing, whether a chronic illness, a physical disability or a difficulty with learning, to hold them back.

Charlie said he and Jude unfortunately lost their younger daughter, Cheryl, who shared Jude’s fighting spirit, to Crohn’s disease three years ago.

“There’s been a lot of setbacks, a lot of sadness in [Jude’s] life but she was able to overcome it,” Charlie said. “Just a fighter, a very giving, a very loving person.”

Charlie said giving back to the community was something both of their parents instilled in them and they both shared a passion for helping others less fortunate.

The couple first met when Jude, who was from upstate New York, was visiting her sister in Groton.

Charlie and Jude’s sister knew each other because they both worked at Pfizer. Jude was introduced to Charlie, when Charlie saw Jude’s sister at the Blessing of the Fleet celebration in Stonington and went to say hello.

They got to talking and then all of the sudden Jude realized her purse was missing from under the table. Charlie went through some of the dumpsters to look for it in case somebody just took the cash and dumped it.

Jude said that for a stranger to do that, he must have “a heart of gold. Charlie likewise was taken by Jude’s kindness and personality. The two, who both shared a love of volunteering and helping others, clicked. They dated long-distance until Jude moved in with her sister in Groton, and then Charlie and Jude got married at Sacred Heart Church in Groton on St. Patrick’s Day in 1978.

As they raised their daughters, they supported their activities, such as the marching band at Robert E. Fitch High School, and their daughters’ friends loved coming over to their house in Groton City. If employees at Pfizer weren’t able to go home for the holidays, Charlie and Jude would invite them over to their house to help decorate the Christmas tree and have a holiday meal with them.

Jude’s obituary states donations can be made in her memory to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center  in Hartford or to local food banks, and Charlie has already received responses from people around the country who have made donations to their local food banks in Jude’s memory. Former students and people whose lives she touched at the Youth Rally wrote moving tributes about how she gave them the confidence to go on with their lives.

“She made so many people’s lives better, including mine,” he said.

Charlie said he has been reflecting on UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s quote: “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

“Jude had a lot of perfect days in her life,” Charlie said.

“Jude made everybody feel welcome and everybody feel special,” he added. “She just had a quality about her, and I’ve been sharing the John Wooden quote and I’ve been telling people the best way to honor Jude or to remember her is we should all try to have as many perfect days as we can. I hope people take that to heart, especially now. There’s just so much going on. It’s really time to start pulling together.”

k.drelich@theday.com

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