Earlene May felt sorry for the old man pushing a line of carts through the parking lot of the grocery store.
Then she learned John “Mickey” Judge’s story, and her pity turned to awe.
Judge, 91, doesn’t need a job to get by. But he chooses to work five-hour shifts five days a week at Harris Teeter in North Raleigh’s Wakefield community. He arrives early each day to make coffee in the break room, then spends much of his time returning carts to the store.
“A lot of people report to big shots there, ‘Why do you have a senior citizen pushing carts?’ ” Judge said. “I tell them I don’t have to.”
Judge says staying busy keeps him young. So does being nice to customers, who have gotten used to seeing him in his orange safety vest and occasionally breaking out in song and dance.
May hopes to host a birthday celebration at Harris Teeter for Judge, who will turn 92 on Dec. 31. She organized a surprise party last year, complete with cake and balloons, that drew about 50 people.
He’s the reason I continue to go to that store, because I hope to run into Mickey. We just adore him.
Earlene May, who is planning a birthday party for him
“He’s the reason I continue to go to that store, because I hope to run into Mickey,” May said. “We just adore him.”
Judge first started working at Kroger and Harris Teeter stores in Wilmington 18 years ago. When he moved to the Triangle in 2003, he worked at Harris Teeter stores in North Raleigh and Wake Forest before he ended up at the Wakefield site.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1924, Judge went on to do two stints in the Navy. He worked as a bus mechanic for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority until he retired at age 62.
‘My only love’
A better-late-than-never love story brought him to North Carolina in the 1980s.
Judge found his love as a teenager, but life got in the way and his beloved Betty married another man and raised a family. In 1964, Judge saw an obituary for her father and attended the funeral. They reconnected and married in 1970, and later moved to North Carolina to be closer to Betty’s family.
When Betty was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Judge was at her side, feeding her lunch at the nursing home. After he had quadruple bypass heart surgery in 2001, he temporarily moved into the nursing home to recover. Betty died two months later.
“That was my only love I had,” Judge said.
He never had children of his own, but Judge remains part of his late wife’s family – four children, 11 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
That was the tally by Donna Marie Duffy, Judge’s step-daughter who he lives with in Franklin County. Duffy, 68, doesn’t discourage Judge from continuing to work. Customers appreciate him.
“If somebody goes in there and he has a bad day, he can put a smile on their face,” she said.
Edward Kearney regularly visits the Harris Teeter, and he looks forward to seeing Judge.
“I tell you one thing about Mr. Mickey – he makes these young guys look bad,” Kearney said. “At his age, he still has a very strong spirit. And that’s the beauty of Mickey.”
Place in the world
It’s important for seniors to stay active and interact with others, said Dr. Leroy Darkes, community medical director for UNC Rex Healthcare. They need to feel like they still have a place in the world, that they still have value.
Society has a way of shutting out the elderly, pushing their final years into a loop of television soap operas and microwave dinners. Without a chance to talk to people – to share their wisdom – they “will dry up and disappear, and that’s terrible to see,” Darkes said.
Judge has no intention of disappearing. After work, he usually drives himself to lunch at Golden Corral. He’s active with the Knights of Columbus in Louisburg. Every Saturday, he attends mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Raleigh.
I’m having a ball being alive. You’d be surprised how many people say, ‘When are you going to retire?’ When they call me upstairs, that’s when I’ll retire.
Mickey Judge, who works at the Wakefield Harris Teeter
“I’m having a ball being alive,” Judge said. “You’d be surprised how many people say, “When are you going to retire?’ When they call me upstairs, that’s when I’ll retire.”
May, 65, is hoping for a big turnout for Judge’s birthday celebration. Honoring her favorite Harris Teeter employee has helped her deal with the pain of losing her husband, who died of cancer on Dec. 29, 2011.
“I decided instead of wallowing in grief, I would do something nice for somebody,” May said of last year’s party. “I couldn’t think of anybody better than Mickey.”