Judith Distler - Retirement

‘Give From the Heart’

Retiring Foundation Director and past Grand Archon Judith Distler
epitomizes devotion to sisterhood.

March 10, 2011

AFTER NEARLY 45 YEARS OF VOLUNTEER SERVICE to Phi Sigma Sigma, Judith Howard Distler might hope we’ll downplay her retirement and let her ride off into some kind of sunset. (Indeed, upon recently stepping down from 20 years of service on the Phi Sigma Sigma Foundation Board, she said as much. Not that we’re about to let that happen, of course.)

She wanted no fanfares, no farewells of any kind. Which makes sense: After all, she’s not stepping away from the sorority she loves entirely (never will) – or, we suspect, from special volunteer roles or appearances past Grand Archons are called upon to make from time to time.

Still, it’s quintessentially Judith to avoid the limelight. If you’ve ever met this tall, striking and elegant woman, you know that despite commanding the attention of a room whenever she walks into one, this natural leader who has always been willing to work hard, draw generations of sisters together, tell jokes and stories, and laugh at herself is a down-to-earth, self-effacing soul.

“It’s been a good run,” she says simply of her unparalleled volunteer service to Phi Sig. “We’ve done a lot, we’ve grown a lot…. We struggled through the lean years of the Vietnam War, through recessions, but we never gave up because we believed in what we had, we believed in this sisterhood. And now,” she adds, noting recent accomplishments such as the pending, high-profile recolonization of our Beta Xi Chapter at Cornell University this fall, “we’re coming full circle.”

To Judith, any accomplishments made under her watch for the Foundation or Fraternity were a collaborative effort of sisters. To her sisters, however, she is an unshakable mainstay since 1967 who has given generously to our organization.

A Phi Sig institution

There are plenty of notable achievements Judith would probably prefer we avoid mentioning – such as the fact that the Phi Sigma Sigma Foundation’s greatest financial gains occurred after she assumed the presidency in 1994. Since that time, the corpus (or total body of funds) managed by Foundation has increased 400% – due in part to her growth strategy during the booming economy of the ’90s and her support of the first-ever Foundation auctions, which now raise tens of thousands of dollars annually. She also oversaw the establishment of some of our largest-ever scholarship funds.

No doubt she’d also want us to downplay the impact of her many sizable donations to Foundation over the years, benefiting philanthropic causes like the National Kidney Foundation, scholarships and grants for sisters, and leadership programming. (Let’s just say we’ve created a new giving level – the Sphinx Rose, for donations of $20,000 to $29,000 – and Judith is one of our very first honorees. Oh, and let’s not forget her Centennial Club pledge of $10,000 toward Phi Sig’s Centennial celebration in 2013.)

However, one thing that Judith would most certainly want you to know is the extraordinary pride she has for her family: for daughter Wendi (initiated into our Delta Gamma Chapter at San Francisco State, a ceremony Judith proudly attended as Grand Archon in the ’80s), her two sons, and her three granddaughters, whom she hopes will one day join Phi Sig, of course.

She’d also want you to know what an amazing experience she’s had being a Phi Sigma Sigma. Among her most favorite memories:
  • Getting to know Founder Jeanette Lipka Furst (a “sharp, cool and modern woman with no children – a sort of grandmother to us who thought of sisters as her children”)
  • Volunteering with sisters at the U.S. Transplant Games (an NKF-hosted Olympics-style event which Foundation helps sponsor biennially), and
  • Planning Phi Sig’s 75th anniversary, which she presided over as Grand Archon in 1988.
And those are just three of the hundreds of stories she could tell you – detailed memories of glittering galas, significant sisters and important sorority achievements that highlight what a rich and colorful history we have.

Even a casual conversation with Judith makes it clear: She has probably learned and forgotten more about Phi Sigma Sigma than you may ever know. That’s when you begin to understand what an institution she is within our institution.

Golden years

An initiate of our Zeta Chapter at the University of California-Los Angeles, Judith describes her earliest years in Phi Sig as “golden.” She lived at the house and served as Vice Archon to the chapter of 100+ women. “As perfect as you could imagine it, it was just that way,” she says.

She was recruited by her mentor, Ilene Rosen Olansky – a neighbor who happened to be her high-school phys-ed teacher, a UCLA Phi Sig alumna and our Grand Vice Archon of Undergraduates. (She ultimately became the Foundation's first President.) Judith babysat Ilene’s kids for years before attending UCLA herself and, not surprisingly, being urged to join the chapter.

“My parents were reluctant,” Judith says with a light laugh. “They thought it would detract from my education.” Ilene talked it over with them – explaining the many opportunities Judith would have to learn, lead and grow; Judith’s mom saw how living with other women at the sorority house would give her daughter the sisters that Judith, an only child, never had.

Her parents consented; Judith “pledged” Phi Sigma Sigma. Little did they realize she was embarking upon the journey of a lifetime – and the path to pursuing her own greatness.

Rising star

In the years following, Judith would become a rising star among young alumnae. “I got noticed by doing little things here and there,” she says. “That’s how it happens.”

At first, she helped with small jobs, such as ferrying sorority leaders to and from the airport at major events. Before long, she was tapped to assist at regional, then national levels – notably, as National Tribune responsible for chapter expansions during the tenure of Grand Archon Louise Kriegsman Kier Zirretta in the early ’80s.

When Judith was elected Grand Archon in 1983, it was a dream come true. She threw herself into the role and, in the five years she served, achieved much:
  • First-ever computerization of our Headquarters (then called “Central Office”) – a very big deal and a major investment back in the day.
  • Diversification of chapters and membership as Phi Sig embraced a new strategy to expand on campuses large and small, further cementing our “brand” as the values-based sorority for women of all backgrounds, cultures, religions and viewpoints.
  • Our 75th anniversary celebration planning. Even now, sisters in attendance speak of the event as one of the social highlights of our sisterhood’s history.
Shortly after concluding her term, Judith set her sights on a new goal: leading our Foundation to even greater heights. She was president from 1995 to 1999, but has served on the Board of Directors continuously for 20 years on various committees, including administration, oral history, fundraising and programming.

Judith, now retired at age 63 and living in Fairfax, Va., did it all while being a mother of three and working full-time as a financial analyst for the military. What drove her was sheer love for our organization, she says. Small wonder, then, that’s she’s been an inspiration to so many.

“I encourage every Phi Sigma Sigma to volunteer whatever time she can to our sisterhood, because it’s so rewarding – more than I can possibly say,” she explains. “But we still need money if we’re to be successful in our efforts to give young women the opportunities we’ve been given, the wonderful friendships we have, the home we’ve found in Phi Sig.

“That’s why – if I could say anything as I’m retiring – it’s ‘Give from the heart,’ which is what I try to do,” she adds. “Give because you can, because you agree this sorority empowers young women and helped you become the wonderful person you are today. Give because you love what Phi Sigma Sigma gave you, and because it’s worth sharing with others, too.”

Judith may be retiring, but she’ll never retire from giving to the Phi Sigma Sigma Foundation. Learn the many ways you can give, too, by visiting our Foundation website. Or, to honor her service, consider contributing to the Past Grand Archons' Scholarship, initially established when Judith retired from Supreme Council as Grand Archon. See a description of the scholarship here. Make a donation here, and note “JUDITH DISTLER” in the comments field.