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Alumni Profile in Excellence: Spirited Journey: Judy Elledge Views Each Day as an Adventure

October 25, 2008

Judy Elledge rides her bicycle to work. It's not a sleek racer or a mountain bike -- it's a coaster bike with big, fat tires and fenders. And Elledge is not making the trip along a country road or small-town main street -- she's riding nearly eight miles each way to the ConocoPhillips headquarters in Houston.

"I am quite fortunate that my employer has a fitness center where I can shower and change on arrival!" Elledge pointed out. "Riding the bike to work allows me to accomplish both my commute and my day's exercise at the same time. Plus, it is fun.

"When I'm on a bike, I feel like an 8-year-old again -- which is about the last time I ever spent so much time on a bike," said the 1968 OBU graduate. "And every commute is an adventure!"

Born in Washington, D.C., the former Judy May grew up in Falls Church, Va., and was a member of McLean Baptist Church. Dr. Orin Cornett, a 1934 OBU alumnus, encouraged Elledge to consider attending OBU. Not to be daunted by a potential adventure, Elledge struck out for the southwestern campus.

"It helped that my dad was from a very small town in West Texas, and I had visited there practically every summer of my life," Elledge said. "I did notice that in Oklahoma there was an awful lot of red dirt and no water in the rivers."

Being far from home, Elledge found it difficult to miss her family's big, traditional Thanksgiving celebration. But she said she had "the best roommate ever," Joyce Cook Hall, '68, whose family adopted her for the holiday.

On Bison Hill, Elledge was active in Mortar Board, Sigma Alpha Iota, Atheneans and the University Chorale. Academically, she felt challenged by Dr. Bill Mitchell, who taught her freshman English class.

"He impressed on us all, through accounts of his own experiences, the importance of taking the opportunity to really learn all that we were being exposed to for the very first time - not simply making a slap-dash effort at packing in just enough information to pass the next test," Elledge said. "He was wise and also obviously concerned for us all."

Following graduation, Elledge taught English and psychology in high school, served as a social work associate in a veterans' hospital, worked as a secretary in the Department of Justice and became a legal assistant for Conoco Inc. Her son, John, was born in 1977, and her daughter, Julia, was born in 1980. Then a mother of two, Elledge earned her juris doctorate from the University of Houston Law Center, graduating with honors in 1988.

Difficult, Fulfilling Work

Surviving a courageous commute, the adventure continues at work, where Elledge serves as senior counsel for the third-largest integrated energy company in the United States. She is responsible for toxic tort litigation and manages several hundred cases annually, working with in-house legal staff as well as outside counsel in various jurisdictions nationwide.

"Probably the most challenging thing about my work is the fact that I don't care much for confrontation -- an odd characteristic for a litigator, to be sure," she said.

"One of the more fulfilling things about my work is also part of what makes it very difficult," she continued. "The lawsuits that I deal with involve claims of disease resulting from exposure to potentially harmful substances during the 1940s to 1970s."

Trying to develop facts about such long-ago operations creates a difficult challenge, particularly since no one involved in the events of that time still works with the company. In the course of her investigations, she has the opportunity to talk to many retirees of both Conoco and Phillips. "I inevitably find them to be wonderful and impressive individuals," she said.

Giving Back

Elledge balances her work with a healthy dose of volunteering, including service through the American Heart Association and Habitat for Humanity. She became involved in the American Heart Walk because heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States - including her grandmother and mother.

"God has blessed me in so many ways: with wonderful parents, a relatively healthy body, a normal brain," she said. "How could I not look for ways to give back?"

Habitat for Humanity impressed Elledge the first time she read about it several years ago. She believes there are many benefits to home ownership both to the individual homeowner and to the community. She has put this belief into action by helping build a Habitat home in New Orleans, assisting homeless veterans and providing legal services to Habitat home buyers in the Houston area.

"Habitat makes home ownership possible for many, many people who have worked hard all their lives at jobs that simply don't pay enough for them to accumulate a down payment on a home," she said. "And the homeowners pay for their homes and contribute labor to the building effort. I like the dignity of that."

Elledge also remains an active part of her local church, Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, moderating the worship and music committee, serving on the stewardship committee and singing in the choir.

Despite the many adventures of Elledge's daily life, family remains centrally important. John graduated with honors from the University of Texas in Austin, and Julia, a National Merit Scholar, also graduated with honors in a triple-major at the university. John and his wife, Vanessa, gave Elledge her first grandchild, Parker, born in February and named in honor of Judy's father, Parker May. She plays with her "good-looking, personable" grandson every spare moment.

If little Parker follows in his grandmother's footsteps at all, life should be quite an exciting ride.

Click the following link to view a full list of previous Profile in Excellence recipients.