Judith “Judy” Bemis drew on her own life experience to help others with anxiety, spearheading a network of support groups when it was taboo to discuss mental health.
“She was this tiny, quiet woman who just had all this compassion,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with mental illness. “She helped countless people.”
Bemis died May 6 of COVID-19 at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul. She was 82.
Bemis was born in St. Paul in 1937, and she loved music, playing the piano from childhood and relishing classical music concerts as a teen. After putting herself through college, she became a music teacher.
She met Alpheus Bemis while performing community theater in Michigan. The two married and had two daughters. They moved to Minnesota, where she got a teaching job in St. Louis Park.
She was a devoted mother, said her daughter Amy Bemis, and gave her kids opportunities she hadn’t had. Music filled their home, and holidays were especially treasured.
Longtime friend and colleague Jane Karayusuf described Bemis as warm and welcoming.
“She could find humor in any moment of life,” she said.
Bemis also worked with Musical Magic Theater, a community summer education program she started. Bemis and the children put on “The Wizard of Oz” and other musicals.
“She related to (the kids) in a way they understood,” Karayusuf said.
In the early ’80s, debilitating panic attacks crippled her.
After working with a therapist, Bemis learned to manage her anxiety and wanted to help others. In 1986, she started the Open Door, a support group.
No other support groups for anxiety existed at the time, said Dan Reidenberg, a family friend and the executive director of SAVE.
At one point, the Open Door had nearly 10 different groups, enough that Bemis trained others to run them. In 2006, the Open Door merged with NAMI-MN’s groups.
Bemis also wrote two books on anxiety, including “Embracing the Fear: Learning to Manage Anxiety and Panic Attacks,” which she co-wrote with Amr Barrada.
In addition to daughter Amy of Bloomington, survivors include daughter Kimber Luedtke of Hopkins; stepchildren Polly Havins of Calumet, Mich., and Tracey Bemis of Little Rock, Ark.; brothers Jerry Ridley of Oakland, Calif., and Greg Faulkner of Braham; sister Janice Hines of Dellwood and five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A memorial date has yet to be set.