Anyone who has frequented the Robert E. Kennedy Library in the past 30 years has most likely noticed her — she can often be found outside, taking a drag of a cigarette and enjoying what she calls “therapy,” laughing with students, sharing stories of her rich past.
“I may be old, but I still have my swag on,” said head of access services Judy Drake, laughing at her own joke.
Since August 1972, months after graduating from Cal Poly, Drake began working at the library, which she considers her “fortress.” Drake has friends of all ages and reveals to them stories just as abundant and lively as those on the library bookshelves.
“Right now, I’m just high on life,” Drake said. “I may never be wealthy when it comes to money, but I’m very wealthy in the friends that I have.”
Just shy of 65, Drake is choosing to put off retirement for a few more years because working in the library is fascinating, she said. She enjoys helping students and the interactions she has with young people. She said she feels a connection with Cal Poly students and makes new friends every year.
Physics sophomore Ian Powell said he first started chatting with Drake when smoking outside of the library. He said the smokers’ bench is surrounded by friendly vibes and the two started to talk a lot and get to know each other in between puffs.
“She’s my homie,” he said. “Talking to a professor, you always get lectured by them; there isn’t a conversation. With her, there is no generational gap at all. I can talk to her like I can talk to anyone.”
Powell said he talks with Drake about everything, enough to discover her life has made for some crazy stories.
“She’s pretty much been through everything you can possibly go through: She’s wise,” Powell said. “She gives profound advice and relates well to things.”
Living a rich life started with being born to an Air Force officer.
Drake began traveling the world at just 6 years old. She lived in Japan during the 1950s, then went to Europe for five years, she said. In her first summer living in Germany, the Berlin Wall went up.
“There is no reaction when you live in a military housing area,” she said. “When you’re 13 years old, you don’t fully understand what’s happening, but you are just told what could happen. I don’t think I was freaked out, but I remember as long as my mom was OK, and my dad came home, I was fine.”
Another part of Drake’s background includes experiencing firsthand the extreme prejudices of whites toward blacks when visiting family in America’s south in 1959. Drake is a “closet poet” and in one poem, she described what it was like for someone to inherently hate her for having “chocolate skin” and “shiny black braids.”
Drake admitted she has been a “closet poet” for more than 40 years, and from a young age her words have served as a release from the responsibilities of being the oldest of six, she said.
Drake’s only sister, Kathleen Richardson, said her sister didn’t have a lot of time to herself because she had to take care of her siblings.
“She never had a chance to be a brat because she was the oldest,” she said. “That is one of the downfalls of being the oldest child, you have to help bring up everyone else.”
A resident of Virginia, Richardson said she talks to her sister approximately 10 times a week.
She said Drake repeatedly played the role of a mother, a best friend, a good listener and a helper.
“I do believe she and I would be really good friends if she wasn’t my sister,” Richardson said. “She goes way past the mile to make someone else feel comfortable before she cares about herself.”
Richardson also said her sister is a motivator, that she believes if she can make it through things, anybody can make it through things.
“One thing I have to say about Judy is she deals with whatever is handed to her, she’s not the type who feels sorry for herself,” Richardson said. “She does what she has to do and presses on.”
Drake’s perseverance to fight through the low points in her life is what helped when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, Richardson said.
Her battle with cancer meant 10 months of chemotherapy. In the first four months, Drake was treated once a month, and for the last six, she underwent chemotherapy twice a month. It was very intense and the hardest part was the side effects, Drake said.
“I’d wake up in the morning and on the pillowcase was my hair,” she said.
One afternoon after dropping her son off at school, Drake went into her bathroom to brush her hair, which was detaching and falling from the follicles.
“I passed out on the bathroom floor from crying,” she said. “But I had a son who was 12 years old and had to be strong for him. I wasn’t going to give into it.”
After her final chemotherapy session, Drake remembers sitting in her car and crying tears of joy.
“I got a second chance on life by surviving cancer,” she said. “It made me see things differently, to take each day as it’s given to you whether it’s good or bad.”
Now she uses the strength she got from overcoming cancer to help others.
Course reserves coordinator Sharon Andresen said Drake is a very supportive boss who lets Andresen accompany her son, who has cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy, to his weekly treatments.
“She’s always very understanding if something comes up,” Andresen said. “It’s all friendly, nice and happy with Judy.”
As a librarian, Andresen said Drake saves the day a lot. When people call in sick, Drake will come in and cover a shift even when she’s already worked an eight-hour shift that day.
“Judy is always the one that will step in and work the shifts no one will fill,” she said. “She’s just that type of person; she wouldn’t want to inconvenience someone else, so she’d just step up and do it herself.”
Drake’s work dedication is also recognized by her own boss, Anna K. Gold, the university librarian.
Drake played a pivotal role in staffing the library during the furlough year in 2009, Gold said. When all university employees experienced a 10 percent reduction in pay and hours, Drake was responsible for scheduling staff to keep the library open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. without hiring any new personnel, she said.
“That’s invisible work but it’s critical to maintaining a resource that students depend on,” Gold said. “To say she goes out of her way is an understatement. She’ll turn herself inside out to help a student.”
Drake’s commitment to supporting students is unparalleled and is invested in building an inclusive culture, doing so in a relaxed and open way, Gold said.
“She is warmth; she’s amazing” she said. “She’s very generous in sharing her experience. I joke that when she retires, we’ll have to set up an apartment for her upstairs.”
Drake was set to retire in 2014, but her son encouraged her to keep working because of her passion toward her work. He also reminded his mother how much she didn’t like sitting around the house, Drake said.
Drake loves what she does, and if she didn’t, then she wouldn’t get out of bed each day, she said.
“When I do retire, you best wear your life vest, and if you have a kayak bring that too, because I will be crying,” she said.