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The community’s storyteller: Former Bulletin reporter Judy Spooner remembered

Judy Spooner, pictured at a party for her retirement from the South Washington County Bulletin in October 2013. She died Nov. 3. (Bulletin file photo)

Spend enough time around south Washington County, and you would eventually run into Judy Spooner.

A well-known figure in the community, Judy covered just about every news beat in her four-decade career as a reporter, photographer and columnist for the Bulletin. With notebook in hand and camera bag in tow, her stories took her from school events to government meetings, churches to city parades, people’s living rooms to the hidden corners of Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Newport, Grey Cloud Island Township and beyond.

Judy died early Thursday, Nov. 3, following a year in hospice. She was 75.

Gary Spooner said his wife loved sharing stories of people in the community. She was partial to stories about children — whether at a festival, in a classroom, on stage or on an athletic field.

Judy also relished a quirky story idea: the woman whose attic was full of pigeons or the people who discovered strangely shaped produce in their garden and called to tell her about it.

“Whenever she got a tip from somebody, she’d follow up on it,” Gary said. “She had very little problem getting a story out.”

Judy started working at the Bulletin in 1967. Her first byline appeared two years later on a June 26, 1969. “Husband Gary,” as Judy often called him, became a co-owner of the Bulletin in 1970.

As Judy recounted for a story upon her retirement three years ago, she had left the Bulletin twice before, in the 1970s and again in the ’80s. But she couldn’t stay away long.

When she returned in 1988, she photographed children in a Christmas program. Afterward, she walked out with tears in her eyes. “I’m in the parking lot,” she recalled in 2013, “and I said, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’ Just tell stories — that’s all I really wanted to do.”

After Gary sold the Bulletin newspaper in 1994, he spun off the Bulletin License Center as a separate business. Judy kept writing for the newspaper, but they teamed up each Christmas season to play Santa and Mrs. Claus in the community.

Her long-running weekly column took on all sorts of issues. She was a breast cancer survivor who wrote about her chemo treatments in the column. She also frequently wrote about her family: Gary, daughters Marjorie Williams and Laura Booth, son-in-law Eric Williams and other relatives and friends.

History sleuth

The column featured the discoveries of local historical research she conducted with friend and lifelong Cottage Grove resident Bev Gross.

“When she first started, she didn’t know much about history and she didn’t know the area,” Gross recalled. “I kept bugging her. She really got into it. The more we talked about it, the more she’d get into it.”

Judy’s curiosity and persistence once led them to the abandoned Nessel School, a post-Civil War structure still standing in a wooded area of southeast Cottage Grove.

“We got back there and, of course, we couldn’t get in the door. I gave her a big shove and in she went,” Gross laughed. “She’s got this big camera in her hand and in she flies.”

Judy’s history sleuthing led her to serve on the Cottage Grove Advisory Commission on Historic Preservation. She was named Preservationist of the Year in 2012.

Spooner’s other interests included coaching the Park girls’ golf team, watching high school state hockey finals, traveling around the country with her friend Ruth Voights and adding to her collections of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls and Christmas dishware.

Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey knew Judy for years. He said her knowledge of the city really became apparent when she saw him on election night in 2008 and congratulated him on his first mayoral victory. Bailey said he tried to tell Judy there were still two precincts that needed to report.

“She says, ‘I know this town. There aren’t enough votes in those two (precincts). You’re the new mayor,’” Bailey recalled. Her election race call proved correct.

Judy is a part of Cottage Grove history, Bailey said.

A student herself

Education was important to Judy. She went back to school, earning a degree in American Indian studies.

She was a familiar face in every local school. Her stories sent her to classrooms so often she once asked if she could have a security key card for school buildings. That didn’t happen, but her desire to share students’ successes never waned.

“She took a real interest in relaying their message,” Gary said of students.

District 833 School Board member Tracy Brunnette noted Judy’s death at last week’s board meeting, thanking her for “being such an amazing advocate for our school district and for all the stories that she had in the South Washington County Bulletin and Woodbury Bulletin highlighting our schools and the great things we do.”

Judy filed her last story for the Bulletin Sept. 20, 2013. She had planned to continue writing periodically in retirement, but she suffered multiple strokes and spent the past year at Norris Square Senior Living in Cottage Grove.

She lost the ability to speak and most use of her right arm and leg. The writing ended abruptly. There were unfinished columns and history projects. She had talked of writing a book.

“There’ll never be another one like her,” Gross said of her friend.

A visitation will be from 4-8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at Kok Funeral Home, Cottage Grove. A funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, at Crossroads Church in Woodbury, with a one-hour visitation prior.

Gary said his wife didn’t want “morbid funeral songs” at her service, so instead the music will reflect her appreciation for Dixieland. The recessional song will be “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

“This is a celebration,” Gary said.

Bulletin reporter William Loeffler contributed to this story.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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