It was the summer of 1961 when a young African American woman named Judith Lige landed a secretarial job in the math department of Rutgers College.
Lige was thrilled, and relieved. The last several months of job hunting had been frustrating, and she felt the presence of a subtle but pervasive racism in New Brunswick.
As she prepared for her first day at Rutgers, she never imagined that her new workplace was on the verge of historic change – and that she would be called upon to play a central role.
“When I started as a junior secretary, I was so grateful, I just wanted to prove I could do a good job,” Lige said recently. “Then it became so much more.”
Over the next half a century, Lige became a vital force in the math department’s expansion from a small academic unit to one with a worldwide reputation for research, responsible for educating thousands of students every year.
Her retirement in March from her job as the department’s business manager prompted an outpouring of appreciation from faculty and staff alike.
“Through the years, I think all the chairs felt that as long as Judy is here, the department will be fine, because she knows everything about the department,” said Richard S. Falk, a veteran math professor and acting executive dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.
Lige arrived at Rutgers just as an energetic young math professor, Kenneth G. Wolfson, had been elected department chair. Wolfson had big ideas about the future of math at Rutgers.
“At that time, Rutgers wasn’t particularly noted in the research community in mathematics,” said Terence Butler, a math professor at the university since 1958. “What Ken wanted to do was to develop the department into one with a nationwide reputation for research.”
Lige first met Wolfson during her job interview. She was 19 at the time, and dealing with a disappointing turn of events in her life. The second of eight children, she was supposed to be the first in her family to go to college.
But her father suffered a work-related injury during her senior year in high school. Rather than go away to college, Lige had to stick around and help support the family. She completed a one-year business college program. Intelligent and energetic, she took a Civil Service exam and finished near the top.
But she could not find a job.
Although civil rights battles were raging in the South at that time, African Americans in the North faced a strain of racism that while perhaps not as overt as in the South, was just as corrosive.
“African Americans didn’t work at offices too much in those days,” she said. “Nobody ever came right out and said that. They’d just say ‘the job is not available.’’’
But Lige made a strong impression on Wolfson. He offered her the job and soon made her an integral part of his plans to remake the department.
“He needed someone very capable, someone who could more or less run the department while he was busy trying to develop the funding for research,” Butler said. “Though Judy was very young, Ken saw in her a tremendous intellect and capability.”
Wolfson’s 14-year tenure as chair is referred to as “the push to excellence” in an online history of the department written by Professor Charles A. Weibel. Wolfson expanded the graduate program, and created an institute for the training of high school and college teachers. He also brought in large sums of grant dollars, applying the money to salaries to attract top research mathematicians.
The department quickly outgrew its home at 185 College Avenue and, in 1972, moved into the Hill Center on the Busch Campus.
“Judy was able to handle the incredible change in the department,” Butler said. “She dealt with huge amounts of money coming in from the university and the National Science Foundation.”
She also took a personal interest in faculty, keeping abreast of changes and trends in federal grant programs, encouraging faculty to apply, and helping them through the process.
“She really went out of her way for faculty,” Falk said. “This was her group. She did everything she could to take care of them and promote them.”
Working under Wolfson, Lige said she learned the skills, and gained the confidence she needed to run the business affairs of the department.
“Ken Wolfson not only taught me many of the skills needed to do my job, but also taught me to believe in what he was trying to do,” she said. “He was an amazing man.”
Wolfson died in 2000.
Lige said the best part of her job was the knowledge that year in and year out she had the trust and respect of the department.
“All the administrative decisions were left to me,” she said.
“They relied on me to do that; they depended on me to do that, and they allowed me to do that.”
Over the years, many of Lige's family members have worked and studied at Rutgers. All told, family service currently totals more than 400 years of employment.
Lige recently moved to Virginia, where one of her two sons is a pastor, and lives with his wife and four children in the community of Glen Allen. Lige will be assisting in the work of her son's Faith Fellowship Ministries. She’ll also be visiting her other son along with his wife and five children, in Ohio, where he is vice president of IT project management at J.P. Morgan Chase Retail Financial Services.
“I am blessed to have this opportunity in my life to spend with family,” she said.