Judy Watts, founding director of Agenda for Children, dies at 72 _lowres

Judy Watts

Judy Watts, the founding director of Agenda for Children who led the agency for its first 26 years, died Tuesday at her home of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. She was 72.

When Watts started her work 35 years ago, children’s advocacy was almost unheard of in Louisiana.

“Judy Watts was one of the early clarion voices for children in the State Capitol,” said former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, one of a handful of women serving in the Louisiana Legislature at the time.

Though it’s a standard notion now, the idea of giving children special consideration in the state budget was considered “radical” in the early 1980s, Landrieu said.

Watts also was a leading proponent of licensing day care centers. “You would have thought that the world was coming to an end when we proposed (that),” Landrieu said.

Opponents at first saw it as an affront to religion, said former state Sen. Diana Bajoie, who said the heated debate went on for years. “People said, ‘You’re telling us how to raise our children,’ ” Bajoie said.

Still, Watts kept plugging away, driving to Baton Rouge day after day to explain the issue and illustrate it with stories of Louisiana families who were affected, said longtime friend and collaborator Bill Quigley, head of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University.

It took time, but Bajoie saw a change.

“Judy went from being seen as someone with radical views to an important expert whose testimony was sought by everybody,” she said, noting that Agenda for Children’s annual Louisiana Kids Count Data Book, which provides parish-level data on children and families, has become required reading for policymakers.

A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Watts attended Wellesley and Newcomb colleges. She moved to New Orleans in 1961, operated the Teacher Resource Service, directed the Sarah Allen Childcare Center and then moved to St. Mark’s Community Center, where Executive Director David Billings hired her to work on her vision for high-quality child care. While at St. Mark’s, she created a training program for day care providers and a resource and referral center for parents.

In 1984, Watts and a group of other dedicated advocates founded Agenda for Children. Watts was tapped to lead the new agency and soon became known as an affable but whip-smart director, said fellow agency founder Maggie Tidwell.

Watts also relished life to the fullest, friend Margery Freeman said.

“She loved Mardi Gras, loved to mask and see live music. She smoked like a chimney. She played piano every Sunday for 30 years at St. Mark’s Church. She was lusty, she was vigorous, she was witty and irreverent to the point of hilarity and always up for a good conversation or a good party,” Freeman said.

Survivors include three children, Adam Watts, Jenni Evans and Rachel Watts; a brother, Jeff Hodes, of Hernden, Virginia; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, 1130 N. Rampart St.

Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.