Fond Memories Abound After Judy Grybowski’s Passing

Judith Grybowski (Photo courtesy of UVI)

A public memorial is being planned to remember the life of Dr. Judith Grybowski, a foundational member of the College of the Virgin Islands School of Nursing. Grybowski died March 16 at the age of 85.

Those who remember her described Grybowski as energetic and driven, one among a group of women that helped establish nursing in higher education. They also remember her as half of a vibrant couple that came to the Virgin Islands and immersed themselves in work, friendship, faith, and culture.

A source connected to Grybowski’s family said the public celebration of her life is being planned for June. A small group of family and close friends will say their goodbyes soon at a private memorial.

Those who knew her through the more than 50 years she lived in the Virgin Islands reflected on her dedication to the nursing profession and the big-hearted way she brought many into her family circle. “I had many brothers and sisters. She just adopted them,” said Grybowski’s son, Paul.

Paul was one of two sons born to Kirk and Judy Grybowski before the family moved to the territory in the 1960s. Older brother, Keith, was born during their mother’s undergraduate years at Duke University. By the time Paul came along, Judy Grybowski had established herself in the medical profession.

In the eyes of a loving son, Judy and Kirk Grybowski — his parents — are together again. (Submitted photo)

Former V.I. Health Commissioner Roy Andzue extended the opportunity for Judy Grybowski to join the College of the Virgin Islands. As she settled into her duties, Kirk Grybowski got to work helping to establish the territory’s Emergency Medical Service and later the all-volunteer St. Thomas Rescue.

Stories she told about the early days of the nursing program included the efforts to create hands-on training programs at hospitals and nursing homes on St. Thomas and St. Croix. Some of her proudest recollections came after the passage of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

“The Charles Harwood roof held during Hugo, but windows were damaged, and everything was wet, and the winds had moved the heavy beds and other furniture all over the place. The whole unit was flooded and a mess. The CVI physical plant assisted us, so we could get back to teaching. However, our students had experiences of a lifetime — experiences few other nursing students could match. They cared for their patients in a ‘MASH unit’ for nine months in the tent hospital,” Grybowski said in a 2012 publication published by the university.

That marked the end of a decade that saw history being made when Judy Grybowski and others helped unionize nurses in the Virgin Islands.

Historic, but also frowned upon. Paul said his mother and some of the organizers hastily departed St. Thomas for St. Croix after receiving a judge’s threat to have them arrested. “She literally went underground; she went to St. Croix because they were threatening to arrest her and throw her in Fort Christian,” Paul said.

At the time, Fort Christian, the 400-year-old fortress in Charlotte Amalie, was used as the St. Thomas jail.

About two years later, Kirk and Judy were on their way to southern Africa, where the UVI nursing professor was called to help build a nursing school in Swaziland. Ravel Laurie Jurgens, another UVI nursing educator, was persuaded by Grybowski to join her overseas mission.

Back home in the Virgin Islands, in leisure time, the family took on the island culture and lifestyle, frolicking with the Gypsies Carnival Troupe, enjoying dinners with local families and helping the St. Thomas Yacht Club and Friends of Denmark organize their activities. Paul fondly remembered his days as a young mariner with the yacht club’s youth sailing program.

He also remembered — bemused — a Kodak moment from St. Thomas Carnival. “I still have a view of my father dressed in a full-body suit. They were Adam and Eve — and it scares me,” their son said.

Friendships grew into lasting relationships; among them was one with Mitchell Neaves, the current vice president for Institutional Advancement at UVI. “He was one of Mom’s first projects,” Paul said.

Neaves said his affiliation with the Grybowskis — and Judy herself — began long before he began his university career. “I have fond memories of our conversations at her home and meeting with her every quarter to have lunch at one of her favorite eateries on St. Thomas. She was a dear friend, mentor and guide throughout our relationship,” he said.

There was also time for faith, said Corinne Van Rensselaer, vestry member at Nazareth by the Sea Episcopal Church.

“After Judy died, I wrote this gathering prayer for the opening of our Nazareth service to honor Judy’s extraordinary presence in our lives,” Van Rensselaer said.

Reciting that prayer was a service Grybowski performed up until the Sunday before her death, even as her speech slowed and she struggled to do what was once easy.

“It was a very humbling time for me each week, hearing Judy give it her best, with such devotion and intelligence and love, and it symbolizes the compassion and loving care that members of Nazareth by the Sea have for each other. It made me realize that perfection is not our goal, that faith is a journey, and that Judy epitomized a strong woman of faith right until the very end,” Van Renssalier said.

And in the days after his mother left this life, Paul Grybowski held closely to an enduring image — his mother and father together, back in Illinois, where she was born. The photo was taken shortly before Kirk Grybowski’s sudden death in 2002.

They sat together on a rock near a rushing river. For their son, the image embodied their lives — two people together, immersed in their lives, as energetic as the waters rolling past their feet.

“If there is a god, they’re still together, just like that,” he said.