Judy Yudof carves her own

Stacy Jo

With a last name like Yudof, she’s bound to get attention.
Organizations often solicit her to give speeches based solely on who she married, and she knows it.
Her response?
Wow the crowd — show them that she has more to offer than a shared last name with the president of the University.
“I have lots of opinions and I offer them all the time,” she said.
What comes across in a conversation with Judy Yudof is not limited to the topics she addresses; her soft voice betrays the depth of her resolve.
She’s strong. Independent. Poised. And at 53 years old, she’s still searching for something to be truly passionate about.
“I don’t know what that is, but I’ll recognize it when I find it,” she said.
What she has found is a way to strike a balance between being Judy Yudof — mother, art connoisseur and member of 13 volunteer organizations — and being the University president’s wife.
From Judy to Yudof
Seated formally in the sunlit garden room of Eastcliff, Yudof is the picture of easy composure.
The delicate pieces of art adorning each tabletop and shelf do not detract from her; wearing a demure, black knit pant suit and flashing a pleasant, welcoming smile, she is a conversation piece in her own right.
Breaking the large house’s pervasive silence, she speaks candidly in a hushed but steady voice of her daughter and son, of adjusting to life in the public eye and of the first time she met her husband — a “really cute guy.”
Yudof wasn’t always comfortably positioned as the first lady of the University.
In the mid-1960s, Yudof completed her undergraduate degree in three years at Temple University in Philadelphia. She majored in mathematics.
After graduating from college at age 20, she married Mark Yudof, whom she met three weeks before her 16th birthday. A mutual friend had introduced the two on Mother’s Day; Judy Yudof said the president called her several days later and even attended her sweet 16.
Mark Yudof didn’t think she was serious about a relationship with him, she said. But time proved otherwise — the couple will have been married 34 years in July.
After graduating from college, Judy Yudof took a job as a computer programmer and systems analyst. The pair lived off her salary for several years while the future president attended law school.
Yudof worked full time until the couple moved to Texas years later. Once in Texas, Yudof no longer held a job; instead, she began what would become a very extensive volunteer career. She became involved with her local synagogue and was later chosen as its president.
Then, in 1996, the Yudofs were thrown a curve ball that would uproot their stable existence.
University officials wanted Mark Yudof as their new president. Judy Yudof said she had trouble advising her husband about whether to pursue the job. The couple was happy in Texas and knew nothing of Minnesota — not even who held elected office.
However, after a whirlwind 24-hour trip to the Twin Cities that included tours of campus and of Eastcliff, her trepidations were eased.
The Board of Regents approved Mark Yudof for the presidency in December; he moved to Minneapolis on June 1, and she made the trek north one month later. The Yudofs lived in an apartment near St. Anthony Falls until they moved into Eastcliff in mid-September.
Privacy in the public sphere
Transforming Eastcliff, an imposing white mansion on the edge of the Mississippi, from a house into a home has challenged Judy Yudof during her 18 months living in St. Paul.
The first floor is considered public space and was mostly furnished by the University before the couple moved in.
A piano belonging to the Yudofs’ children, several photographs — including one of Mark Yudof and former Gov. Arne Carlson posing together — and various pieces of art blend Judy Yudof’s personality into otherwise public space.
Because house staff members oversee the home during weekdays, Yudof also has to contend with having other people in her home most of the time. A frequent site for entertaining, Eastcliff is often full of people from various organizations or campus departments. The Yudofs recently hosted a dinner that included Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Being home, but not home alone, has been a major change for Yudof.
“These are amusing adjustments to get used to,” she said.
Proud of the home’s history, Yudof helped mastermind an effort to return the house to its original style just after the couple moved into Eastcliff.
Lyndel King, director and chief curator of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, worked with her on the Eastcliff project. Yudof, who is also a member of the art gallery’s advisory board, had a strong respect for the home’s history and understood the importance of preserving it, King said.
Most of the time Yudof is home, she can be found in her office, just off the master bedroom. A self-proclaimed “e-mail addict,” Yudof frequently uses her computer to keep in touch with friends and family. But she has not dismissed the strides computers have made since she used to program them.
“My knowledge of computers rather puts me in awe of what’s sitting before me,” Yudof said.
Staying in touch
Yudof also relishes talking about her children; the pride on her face is visible when she mentions their names and brandishes family photographs.
The Yudofs’ son, Seth, 27, works as an illusionist. During the last semester of his senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was studying engineering, Seth announced to his parents his intent to work with magic after graduation.
Yudof said she and her husband were not upset by Seth’s career choice. Because he is multi-talented, he will find another career if this one does not pan out, Yudof said.
Born on the same day of the year as Seth — Jan. 18, six years later — is Samara, the Yudofs’ 21-year-old daughter. A junior in advertising at Southern Methodist University in Texas, Samara lived with her parents in Eastcliff last summer.
Although all four members of the Yudof family lead busy lives, they stay in constant contact by telephone. On Monday, for example, Yudof spoke with both of her children, and her husband called to tell her he had arrived home safely from a trip to Duluth.
The telephone calls keep her up-to-date on the daily whereabouts of the president, whom Yudof said she doesn’t see often. When time does allow, the couple enjoys going to Gophers games or casually padding around Eastcliff during the weekends.
“When down time is limited, it better be high quality,” Yudof said.
When the couple does step out for a night on the town, they are commonly stopped by people who recognize them. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise since the president frequently dons University gear, Yudof added.
Although she said she has complete confidence in the president’s ability to make his own decisions, Yudof said she encourages him to trust his instincts, and not to lose his temper. She said his sense of humor helps him through most tense situations.
“I was worried if his sense of humor would be appreciated in Minnesota,” Yudof added.
Not the president
The demands on the first lady of the University’s time might not rival her husband’s, but they are still daunting.
A widely active volunteer within and apart from the University, Yudof currently holds positions with 13 volunteer organizations, including a national position with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and membership with the University Children’s Foundation Board.
Although numerous groups request her membership, Yudof only donates her time to organizations in areas where she can offer her skills. Most of the groups she is involved with are health or art organizations.
Yudof discourages letting a board just use her name on its membership roster; she wants to be an active member if she’s going to be associated with a board.
“She appreciates what she can do within her role,” said Lindsay Shen, director of the University’s Goldstein Gallery. Yudof has been a member of the Friends of the Goldstein Gallery since she first moved to Minnesota.
Yudof often talks to donors and showcases some of the Goldstein’s works in Eastcliff, actions that highlight her commitment to the gallery, Shen said.
During her first year at the University, Yudof limited her involvement only to organizations affiliated with the University; she has since expanded her options to outside groups as well.
But she does not presume to share the limelight with her husband unless she feels her presence is required. Yudof said she likes to hang back in a crowd and observe, rather than to always stand by her husband’s side during public events. “I’m not the president,” she said.
Although Yudof might not have found what she is searching for quite yet, she has created a place for herself that’s all her own.
“I think everyone needs to feel they’ve got a niche,” she said.