Five Friends – 50 Years – It’s a God Thing
November 2022 Issue
by Edwina Hoyle
Photography by T.R. Love, T.R. Media World
The walls in Judi Clifford’s home are tastefully decorated with scores of family pictures—weddings, vacations, kids and grandkids. These pictures not only include Judi’s biological family, but also her extended family. The photos are a montage of multi-generational friends that have walked through life together: the Cliffords, Richesons, the Ellis family, the Galanti family and the Mears family.
Judi grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her father was one of 10 children, and Judi grew up surrounded by family, especially her tribe of cousins. When she married Ron 60 years ago, his job caused them to relocate 13 times, including to two foreign countries. “With all this constant uprooting, we moved around without relatives, and I wanted the kind of relationships I grew up with for my own children. So, I guess I created cousins by absorbing my friends’ children into our family,” Judy said.
Relationships are extremely important to Judi, particularly with women. “I’m a believer in women encouraging and supporting each other,” she said. “We understand each other in ways our husbands don’t. Friendship is vital. Everywhere I’ve moved, I have been blessed with good friends, but there are four who have stayed the course.”
Judi met Connie Richeson while living in Richmond, Virginia. “I was pregnant and she had one adopted child and was getting another. We really hit it off, and one day we were watching TV and a woman named Phyllis Galanti was talking about her husband who was a POW in North Vietnam. His photo was on the cover of Life Magazine. We were so moved by her story that we decided to call her in Atlanta to see how we could help.” Judi and Connie learned that Phyllis was the head of the National League of Families of American POWs and MIAs, and she regularly visited the Pentagon and was in contact with the CIA. She was spearheading a letter-writing campaign to bring POW’s home, and Judi and Connie joined the effort. Over a million letters were written. Currently a movie called White Gloves is in production about Paul Galanti’s story.
“We all met in 1968, and when I moved, we kept up the relationship and talked every day. When Phyllis’ husband finally returned home, the six of us grew incredibly close.”
In 1976 Judi moved to Indianapolis and met Jane Ellis in Bible study. Jane got a phone call from the school and handed the phone to Judi because her daughter had fallen and had a head injury. “I didn’t really know Jane well at this point, but she said, ‘Let’s get in the car and go.’ That was the beginning of our friendship. We had a lot in common.”
Judi’s quintet of lifelong friends, that she calls the Fab Four, was complete when she moved to England and met Janetanne Mears from New Orleans in the Junior League. Again, they had much in common, especially children.
When the five friends would get together Judi said, “It was a magical thing because all of our husbands liked each other, too. We became a homogeneous group. Our husbands all enjoyed the group and all of our kids are friends.”
“We have to work on relationships. We constantly interacted with each other’s kids and invested in them. Together we’ve walked through losing parents, losing children, illness and sorrow. But we also had so many happy times, we laughed, carried on and had fun.”
When Judi’s oldest son, David, got ALS in 2010, everyone came together as a support team. He had four kids, wasn’t able to work, his drugs were nearly $7,000/month, and the other families started fundraising. “He grew up around them, and they wrapped us up in a bubble wrap of encouragement and love.”
“A year later Connie Richeson suffered a severe stroke and her husband kept her on life support until everyone got there. Phyllis and I spoke at her funeral. That was really hard.”
Then in 2014, Judi and Ron’s son, Curtis, was killed in a helicopter crash in Florida. “We were in such shock. And his wife was so distraught she could hardly stand. The Fab Four got there and took over to make arrangements.” Just a week later, Phyllis was diagnosed with MDS Leukemia and died three months later. Judi planned her funeral.
For over five decades, the quintet of friends rallied in times of tribulation, shared joy and sorrow, and celebrated life’s quintessential moments—but they worked at it. Judi calls their friendships “a God thing.” “The main glue to our friendship is our spiritual commitment. We are all very devout Christians, and God put us together.” Judi has taught Bible study for 50 years and loves to mentor young women on how to build Christian friendships.
• Judi and Ron moved to Hilton Head in 1995 but vacationed here for 15 years before that.
• Cleo Clifford is their 8-year-old Australian Shepherd, which they mysteriously got from their daughter as a support dog after their son died.
• Judi was an interior designer and says she studied “coloring.” She loved staging homes for builders and developers.