Judith Anne Gage, 76, passed away peacefully on March 29, 2022, at Billings Clinic, after a brief battle against pancreatic cancer.
Judie was born in New York City on March 23, 1946, to Louis and Edith Heitner. Growing up in Westchester, New York, proved to be a universe away from the prairies and mountains of Montana, but after spending the vast majority of her life in Billings, she proved to be a true Montanan for decade upon decade, bettering the community and the lives around her through her work, volunteerism, and her fight for better resources and assistance for families dealing with mental illness.
After graduating from Roosevelt High School in 1963, Judie pursued studies at Ithaca College, graduating with a Bachelor’s of Science in Physical Therapy. She completed post-graduate work throughout her career at Eastern Montana College (MSU-Billings). Judie spent most of her career as a physical therapist working with Billings Public Schools. Through her tireless work, Judie helped countless disabled children, and their families, enjoy rich and fulfilling lives they dreamed of but had not thought possible. Billings is filled with “Judie’s kids” thriving all around the Magic City.
She is preceded in her death by her one true love, Tom Gage, in 2010. Judie is survived by her sister, Phyllis Brooks (80) of Matawan, New Jersey; her son Todd Gage (52) of Bozeman; daughter Ali Gage (49) of McKinney, Texas; and son Ryan (44) and his wife Liz Gage of Billings; as well as her four grandsons, Beckett (16) and Locklan Kershaw (14) of McKinney, and Montgomery (7) and Fletcher (4) Gage of Billings.
She had always known from the time she was a young teenager that she wanted to work in physical therapy. Judie spent her professional life until the day she retired working in that field. She worked primarily with disabled children unable to walk, communicate, or, in many cases, both. Through her dedication and nearly 40 years of service with Billings Public Schools, she helped many kids and their families enjoy a quality of life they never imagined possible. Judie understood that the impact that they had on her truly made a difference in her own life. In her own words:
“The many years that I spent with my special children in my daily work were, I always felt, a calling from God. I chose to be a therapist at the age of 16 and never wavered from that decision. Most of my children could not walk or talk but each had a special personality. It was my joy to watch them grow up and to be part of keeping them healthy and happy. I learned more about life and courage from these children and young adults than I can ever express in words. They were often my source of inspiration and courage. I truly loved my work, it was never really work at all, but an outpouring of my love for these special kids. I was the one who was given the privilege of being with them” (July 4, 2000).
She was lovingly referred to as “the old lady” by some kids, hugged as “Momma Judie” by others, and to those who didn’t speak, she was simply a light. She illuminated endless possibilities of what they could do and be in this world. Not many people would’ve used the title “teacher” with Judie. And she may not have used that term herself. However, her special children thrived because she took care of them well. Beyond meeting their basic needs, she went above and beyond and was much more than a physical therapist. She took them to movies, lunches, social outings, and about everything you could imagine a kid would want to do.
She was a true teacher in every sense of the word because a true teacher considers and takes care of and guides the whole child. That’s who Judie was every minute of every interaction she had with her kids in Billings Public Schools to the day she retired. In her passing, she provided some words of strength from a poem titled “Independent Woman” for her children knowing she was gone and that they would hurt at times when feeling her absence. Her family would like all her kids around Billings to have those same words to find comfort and strength in them at this time or at any time in the future when they feel her absence or need the strength they knew she always provided them:
I am not here
You will feel me in a cool summer rain on your face.
You will see me in a gorgeous sunset over a mountain.
You will see me in the tranquil finish of a lake.
You will hear me in a child’s voice.
You will feel me when you touch a flower.
You will sense me listening to the thoughts of your heart.
You will feel me nudge you when you are having indecisive moments.
Know that I am everywhere.
Prior to working for Billings Public Schools, Judie had spent time working in the area of physical
therapy at Billings Deaconess Hospital (Billings Clinic), Mt. Diablo Therapy Center (CA), Cerebral Palsy Center (LA), Yellowstone County Health Department (MT), as well as private practice along the way, generally with students who graduated from Billings Public Schools and continued to do their therapy with her for years afterwards.
It should not surprise anyone, reading about Judie’s work with children, to find out that Judie was an active volunteer in the community for a wide variety of charitable causes and organizations. She had been an active member of Junior League starting in 1975, a regular blood donor year in and year out, a care provider at Young Families for 13 years, she sponsored numerous children every year through St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, as well as volunteer for the Special Olympics for 12 years. She ushered concerts at the Metra, seeing one of her all-time bucket list performers: Garth Brooks. She also ushered at Billings Studio Theater for nearly 40 years. She attended all of the plays and performances her daughter Ali was in at BST on her way to an acting career. She also never missed a play written by her son Ryan or any play her daughter-in-law Liz performed in through their work with Venture Theater (NOVA), Sacrifice Cliff Theatre and BST.
On top of volunteerism, Judie also opened her home to two wonderful foreign exchange students and adopted them as her own and maintained deep relationships with them until the time of her death. In that sense, Judie is also survived by two very special daughters: Sirpa Lahti (Finland) and Hilda Costa (Brazil).
One could argue that Judie’s greatest impact on the Billings community came through her activism in promoting awareness, better resources and support for those dealing with mental illness, and their families. At the time that she began her activism work in this area, Billings did not have any significant organizations assisting families in dealing with issues specifically related to or stemming from mental illness in their household. Along with others like her seeking more assistance and support, she helped organize a group to bring the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to Billings and establish a local chapter. Without Judie’s tireless efforts and organization efforts, the Yellowstone Alliance for the Mentally Ill (YAMI) might not exist today.
Judie met her college sweetheart (and soon-to-be husband) Tom Gage on a bus to Ithaca, New York, in 1964. He was headed to Cornell University, where he was studying chemical engineering. Over the course of their marriage, his work with Exxon took them to California, Louisiana, and even Belgium. Yet, it was his first assignment in Billings that they always loved most and, when a chance to relocate permanently to Billings happened in the early 1970s, they returned and never looked back.
They would return to Europe briefly in the summer of 1972. Tom qualified as a member of the 1972 USA Olympics team, competing in the Hammer Throw that summer in Munich, Germany. Tom had also made the 1968 Olympic Team in the same sport and was set to compete in Mexico City, but withdrew when his father died suddenly at the age of 49 shortly before the Games were to open. After initially retiring from national/international competition to focus on his career and his new family, with the birth of the first child Todd, Judie supported his desire to make the team and take his shot at unfinished business. She would continue to support his love of the sport when he would again pick up the hammer and compete in the Master’s divisions and set national and world records at various ages up until his sudden death in 2010.
Judie and Tom also took over the organization and running of the Big Sky State Games track and field events at the Metra Fairgrounds. Side by side, they undertook that massive event and ran it successfully for 11 years. Tom’s mother often entering numbers on a computer as soon as they came in, while their kids ran heat sheets back and forth between the starting and finishing lines. The Big Sky State Games were truly a family affair for Judie and ran so smoothly because of her focus and calm.
With everything they accomplished and did together in their time together, the most important thing in her life was always the well-being and happiness of her three children. The love that she poured into her children is too extensive to list here, but here are some of the highlights. Judie was a teacher to her own kids, showing them the world of kindness, gentleness, patience, and the importance of being a lifelong learner. While she may be gone, the lessons of honesty, generosity, love, and acceptance of others can be seen in the actions and life choices of her kids. All three kids ended up working in education to one degree or another before she passed; that alone speaks volumes of the kind of mother and teacher she was during her life.
She could always be counted on to not only drive her kids to the various activities they participated in while growing up, but she was always there rooting them on every step of the way. Whether it was watching Ali perform in plays, or supporting Todd in his quest to graduate from college despite challenges and roadblocks that might would have stopped others in their tracks, or traveling around Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and even Canada at one point to support Ryan and his first true love, soccer. She also passed on important family traditions to her children that continue to this day. The uniqueness of opening presents the “Gage Family” way on Christmas morning, a Gage family tradition that she wholeheartedly embraced and enjoyed, no matter how many tiny stocking tags she had to cut. She passed on the Jewish tradition of moving into adulthood and honoring family members of the past and people of their faith that had suffered atrocities, teaching them to appreciate and embrace other people’s differences with love and compassion. Even the simple act of saving some of their favorite, prized childhood toys so that one day their own kids could enjoy them in the same way. And when those grandkids arrived, they did just that.
Being a grandmother to grandsons separated by thousands of miles wasn’t easy, but Judie did everything she could to remain equally connected to them. Her oldest grandsons Beckett and Locklan were hard to see as often as she would like, but she reveled in watching them take to things like soccer, science, languages, music, and space from afar and in person when she could visit Texas. She stayed up to date with Beckett’s quest to become a licensed driver during her final days. She was always blown away by Locklan’s epic NASA Lego builds. And above all, she beamed with pride in their course of study in an International Baccalaureate school, knowing that they were getting a challenging and rewarding education that would enlighten and empower them to be difference makers in the world.
In Billings, “Gigi” (as she liked to be called) found immense joy in watching her younger grandsons grow from babies to toddlers to little boys. She spent many afternoons at the “Art of Play,” where she encouraged Monte and Fletcher to develop their imaginations. She loved playing games and was always trying to avoid getting the “Old Maid” from Fletcher in their one-on-one card games. She enjoyed traveling outside of town and seeing the prairies as they were when she first arrived in Montana. Judie supported Monte’s passion to learn how to ride a horse on those same prairies. She loved trips to ZooMontana and talking about all the animals. As she faced more physical limitations in the final months, she enjoyed afternoon matinees with popcorn and candy. She enjoyed many Pixar movies with Monte and Fletcher on either side of her. And she absolutely loved driving those Montana backroads as much as she could. However, one of her favorite memories with her grandkids came a few months before she passed when she was finally able to sit down and watch the musical “Hamilton” after listening to it for over a year. The day was made even better when she discovered that Monte knew the lyrics to almost every song. She got a double performance of “Hamilton” that day that no one alive has ever experienced the equal to and may never experience.
To try and sum up Judie’s love for her kids and grandsons is an undertaking that would require a book. Considering all the things she accomplished in her life, it is truly amazing that all things came second to her kids and her grandkids. But then again, that’s the power of a strong, independent woman. And Judie was most certainly that.
She did not just raise her kids, though. She guided them and she documented their lives for posterity. She knew that would be extremely important for them to have in the years to come. Judie was always there to support her children in their endeavors and help them with their challenges. She was an avid family record keeper and her home is filled with family photo albums full of great memories from over the years, but also of photo albums documenting the lives and accomplishments of her children. Ali can look back on every play she was in, every film she was cast in, and nearly every other acting accomplishment she filled her resume with over the years. Ryan can look back at his years of soccer accomplishments that eventually gave way to his passion for playwriting and eventually his own time on the stage as well. Todd can look back on the life of study he ventured on, eventually finding his way into the world of computer technology work with the Bozeman School District. More importantly, he can look back, revisit, and enjoy all the various trips they took together. Their bond was a powerful one and their love of travel and their curiosity of places and the stories around them intrigued them to explore together. Sometimes finding the best places and surprises right around the corner from where they lived.
Looking back over Judie’s life, one realizes the number of amazing stories are endless. The number of people she impacted? Nearly limitless. The number of kids she helped live amazing lives? That’s priceless. This memorial celebrating her life could go on and on forever and every time we think we’ve reached the end of what she accomplished, who she touched, or how she impacted the world we would simply find another amazing fact or story to tell about her. Hopefully, the words above remind you of the amazing life Judie lived if you knew her. And if you did not know her, hopefully you wish you had and it motivates you to be an even bigger part of your community. Judie lived by a moral code that a community is only as strong as its most vulnerable members and that we must do our part to see that no member of the community is so vulnerable that they ever feel alone and powerless. She would also want people to balance that code with a life of love, play, and joy with those you love most and those that love you the most. And in that sense, we will conclude the celebration of her life by asking that you keep these words close to you. Turn to them on a regular basis for guidance on how to be a compassionate, giving, and loving person for others while enjoying those same types of people in your own life. In the words of Mother Teresa:
“Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.
Life is beauty, admire it.
Life is bliss, taste it.
Life is a dream, realize it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is a duty, complete it.
Life is a game, play it.
Life is a promise, fulfill it.
Life is sorrow, overcome it.
Life is a song, sing it.
Life is a struggle, accept it.
Life is a tragedy, confront it.
Life is an adventure, dare it.
Life is luck, make it.
Life is too precious, do not destroy it.”
Judie will be laid to rest at Yellowstone Memorial Park in a private family graveside ceremony.
In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family wishes that anyone that would like to do anything to honor Judie’s memory to please consider making donations to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital or the American Cancer Society, providing resources to Young Families, becoming a blood and organ donor, as well as supporting local food banks.