Judy Grunberg, PS21 founder and more, dies

VALATIE—“I was in Chatham earlier today,” Deborah Lans said on Monday, “and I couldn’t imagine not bumping into Judy.”

“Judy” was Judith Grunberg, an outsized presence in Chatham and Columbia County, who died August 30 at the age of 86. An obituary appears in this issue on Page 25.

Judy Grunberg

Ms. Lans serves on the board, currently as interim treasurer, of PS21: Performance Spaces for the 21st Century, which Ms. Grunberg founded in Chatham in 1999. As the two women became friends in Columbia County several years ago, they discovered they had both attended the Dalton School in Manhattan, at different times. This led, one evening, to their bursting into the school song at dinner at the Blue Plate restaurant, a dining staple in Chatham that Ms. Grunberg had purchased years before to keep it from closing.

“The song starts, ‘We go forth unafraid,’” said Ms. Lans. “Perfect for Judy.

“I’ve never known anyone with more energy and life,” said Ms. Lans. “I never heard an unkind word come out of her mouth—well, maybe about politicians, but not on a personal level.”

Ms. Grunberg “ran the gamut,” recalled Ms. Lans, “from the big picture”—when neighbors expressed concerns about PS21’s new, permanent building in a rural area of the Town of Chatham, Ms. Grunberg oversaw architectural and design changes that addressed those concerns—to the small detail. If, on a Saturday night, “someone’s dance outfit needed to be mended, Judy mended it. No task was beneath her,” said Ms. Lans.

Ms. Grunberg is known for her generosity—to the arts, Columbia Land Conservancy and the Columbia Memorial Hospital Foundation, among others. “But she was also very thrifty,” said Ms. Lans. When PS21 had a gala, Ms. Grunberg went out into the property’s orchards and gathered berries and branches “to create beautiful table decorations.”

Ms. Grunberg owned Rewraps, a “resale clothing outlet” on Chatham’s Main Street that helped support PS21. “The Rewraps concept was deeply a part of her,” said Ms. Lans. “She believed in reusing and repurposing whatever you could. She bought her first new car in the last year.

“I’m sure she had moments when she was down,” said Ms. Lans, “but I never saw them. She was going to get there, wherever there was. She was determined in the nicest, softest way. For example, with PS21. It was her dream. She made it happen.”

Ms. Grunberg also made a lot of land conservation happen in Columbia County.

“She ‘got’ this county,” Peter Paden, executive director of the Columbia Land Conservancy, said Monday. “She knew what was significant in it,” not only the land itself but also the animals that inhabit it and the importance of its ecological health.

Ms. Grunberg was a major supporter of CLC for more than 20 years and served on its board from 2003 to 2011, according to the CLC website. “She has been single-handedly responsible for conservation of almost 2,000 acres of Columbia County land, including 1,300 acres of recently created State forest lands,” reports the site.

This includes the Hand Hollow site in New Lebanon and the Doodletown Wildlife Management Area in southern Columbia County, said Mr. Paden. Ms. Grunberg owned the 690 Doodletown acres and sold them to the state for the creation of an area that features hunting and trapping.

Mr. Paden called Ms. Grunberg “an enormously important conservationist in this county,” but also noted that she did this work “quietly—for many years, she seemed shy about acknowledgment.”

This month, CLC planned that acknowledgment: an evening gala at Hudson Hall honoring Ms. Grunberg, Lindsey Lusher Schute and Wendy Power Spielmann on September 28.

“I was hoping a lot of people would turn out and give her a hand,” said Mr. Paden. “Her death changes the tenor of the evening, but we’ll go forward and celebrate her spirit and soul. She was so many things to so many people.”

For details on the gala, visit clctrust.org.

“Ecological health” for Ms. Grunberg extended to food and household products. In 2002 she was a “key member” of the team that began planning the Chatham Real Food Market Coop on Church Street, according to the coop’s website. She was a founding member of the Coop Council until May of this year.

“She never said no to getting involved in local issues she was passionate about, and always brought a sense of enthusiasm and fortitude to the mission,” Patti Matheney, Ghent Town Board member and former CMH board trustee, recalled in an email Tuesday.

Ms. Grunberg had lived in Columbia County for some 50 years. Lael Locke of Chatham said she had known “Judy since she first moved to the Chatham area” and their children went to school together.

In 1965, Ms. Locke recalled in an email Monday, “Judy was the driving force, along with Elizabeth Aldrich and some others—myself included—that formed the Columbia County Council on the Arts and brought Alvin Ailey [dance company] to Chatham to perform. Quite a coup back then, and still would be today.

“We were always friends,” wrote Ms. Locke, “but I think the friendship was renewed in a different frame once we became mutually involved in local philanthropy.” Every year they were both strong supporters of the Shakespeare in the Schools program, from its inception to the present day.

And they were both major contributors to the Chatham Film Club in 2010, during its push to buy the Crandell Theatre, after which they both became board members of the non-profit.

“On a personal level,” wrote Ms. Locke, “Judy was dazzling. She was always in motion and seemed to be a member of at least a half-dozen boards (I probably underestimate!). Everyone knew her, or thought they knew her, or wanted to know her.

“She was optimistic about her cancer diagnosis and treatment and showed no outward signs of illness for months,” said Ms. Locke. “In fact, one of my favorite (relatively) recent memories was the day after we switched to Daylight Savings Time this past spring. We were at a Crandell board meeting when Judy noticed that the wall clock had not been moved ahead. Before anyone could react, Judy ran over to a desk chair, climbed up on it and then onto the desk, and reached out to grab the clock and reset it!

“Judy had a huge impact on my life, both personally and philanthropically,” said Ms. Locke. “Her courage, graciousness and perseverance as she worked to make her dream of PS21 come true were an inspiration, and I am so thrilled that she was able to see the dream building become a stunning reality filled with dance and music.

“I always thought she would live forever, and in a way, she will, through PS21 and the Blue Plate, and ReWraps and the Real Food Coop.”

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