Pacific icon Judy Chambers ’58, ’60 was a trailblazer for student life

Former Vice President for Student Life Judy Chambers ’58, ’60, a Pacific icon, beloved mentor and a trailblazer in the field of student life, died July 11 at Stanford Hospital. She was 87.

Chambers was the first woman at Pacific to lead the Division for Student Life, the first of many pioneering roles she held throughout her career. She was well-known throughout the Pacific community as an advocate who cared deeply for her students. And she did it all with her ever-present humor.

“Judy was a fixture and a beacon of light for our university—through good times and bad—across seven decades,” said President Christopher Callahan. “She was the grande dame of Pacific.”

“Jean and I had the privilege of spending time with Judy last Tuesday at her home,” the president said. “She was vital and vibrant, funny and irreverent and, most of all, optimistic. In short, quintessential Judy Chambers.”

Devoted to Pacific

Chambers’ storied history with Pacific started as a student in 1954 and continued throughout her life.

The only time Chambers spent away from Pacific was at the request of then-president Robert Burns whom she was close friends with (the two would often take bike rides together). Chambers was completing her master’s degree and working in the Dean of Women’s Office at the time.

“(President Burns) said, ‘you have to go away and grow up, otherwise you will never be anything more here than a student. So you go away and when I think it’s time for you to come back, I will call you.’ And that’s exactly what happened,” Chambers recalled in a 2008 interview for the university archives.

She spent eight years as dean of women and assistant professor of speech at Mt. Union College in Ohio. She returned to Pacific in 1968 as assistant to President Burns.

Upon the arrival of new President Stanley McCaffrey, she was moved into leadership roles in student life. Chambers was named dean of students in 1973 and in 1975 became Pacific’s inaugural vice president for student life, a position she held for the next 25 years.

“It was a natural fit,” wrote former Provost Philip Gilbertson in his book, “Pacific on the Rise: The Story of California’s First University.” “She grasped the vitality of out-of-class learning from the start. McCaffrey understood and supported Chambers’ claim that ‘the only real difference between us [student affairs staff] and the faculty is that we teach outside the classroom, not in it.’”

Among her advances were a peer advisor program for first-year students, a new learning center for skills development, the Services for Students with Disabilities Office, the first multicultural affairs position and expanding new-student orientation to three days while adding well-attended orientation programs for parents of new students.

Chambers also was a national leader in student life. She became only the third woman to serve as president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators in 1986 and one of a select few student life leaders to receive NASPA’s two top national awards for outstanding service, Gilbertson reported.

“Judy was a one-of-a-kind Pacifican and this is a huge loss for the university,” said former Regent Chair Norm Allen ’88, ’94. “She cared deeply for students and had such amazing longevity and a deep affection for Pacific. She did it all with such grace, poise and caring.”

After leaving her post as vice president, she continued working for Pacific in the Division of University Advancement.

After fully retiring, she remained a steadfast supporter of Pacific and was a staple at university events. At the university commencement in May, Chambers bestowed the Order of Pacific on Allen, her long-time mentee and friend, and was a recent guest on the virtual talk show Pacific Conversations with Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Scott Biedermann ’05, ’20.

“She was a great Pacifican and loved Stockton very much,” said former Regent Chair Kathleen Lagorio Janssen. “Judy had such a great, positive attitude, and had the sharpest wit. She was an amazing public speaker who brought joy to everyone.”

Said President Emeritus Donald DeRosa: “My thoughts go back to when I first met Judy," he said. "She was a national leader in the profession of student life. She cared so much for the students and really for all people associated with the university. Pacific’s birthday was Monday, and in its 172 years there have been few people with the stature of Judy. She was a true Pacifican.”

Added Regent Chair Mary Elizabeth-Eberhardt: “Her service to students is really what stands out to me. Her heart was absolutely with the students.”

A national leader

Chambers’ influence extended far beyond Pacific. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed Chambers to serve on the board of directors for the Student Loan Marketing Association, better known as Sallie Mae. She was the first woman and non-university president appointed to the board, which she served on for nine years.

California Governor Pete Wilson appointed her to represent the state on the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education and the United States Department of Education invited her to be part of a small group of educators appointed to write the Standards of the Network to Promote Drug-Free Colleges and Universities.

Chambers was one of the first two women in the United States to join Rotary Club and the first to join the Stockton Rotary Club. She also was a member of the Stockton Business Executive Leadership Committee, board of directors for Stockton Beautiful, president and vice president of the Delta Health Care board of directors and volunteer for many organizations, including the United Way.

A legacy of leadership

Her dedication to the Pacific community earned her a long list of honors over the years. She was awarded the university’s highest honor, the Order of Pacific, in 2013. The Pacific Alumni Association presented her with its Medallion of Excellence award in 2001 and she also received Pacific's “Woman of Distinction Icon Award” in 2021.

In 2008, student offices in the then-new Don and Karen DeRosa University Center were named in her honor.

Outside of Pacific, she was the first recipient of the prestigious Athena Award from the Stockton Chamber of Commerce in 1986. She received the two highest awards from the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and in 2010, Goodwill Industries presented her with the Goodwill Helping Hands award to recognize her contributions to the community and university.

Chambers met her first husband, Dewey Chambers, at Pacific, where he was a professor for 32 years. He died in 1999. Her second husband James Darrah, a judge for the Superior Court of San Joaquin County, died in 2015.

She is survived by her stepchildren, Jeanne Darrah of San Francisco and Peter Darrah of Mountain View; nephew, Tim McMillin of Colorado; and step-grandchildren Guard, Darrah, Doug, Bridge, Delia, Maxine and Sadie.

A memorial service will be held July 29 at Morris Chapel on the Pacific campus. Details to follow.

Read more about Chambers in her oral history interview with Scholarly Commons and a story on her retirement from The Record and watch a video honoring her many contributions.