East Coast transplant in Aztec reflects on living life well

James Fenton
The Daily Times

AZTEC — At age 77, Aztec resident Judy Dette lives life on the belief that you follow your muse and don't let others convince you to do otherwise. Trim, and full of energy and laughter, Dette greets each day with the wonder of a child and the gusto of a race car driver.

"I'm disgustingly hyper," said Dette, a retired saleswoman and artist. "If something needs to be done, I say, 'Let's do it and be done with it already.'"

Not close to her family, Dette meets most mornings with friends in Riverside Park to walk dogs and discuss their lives.

Recently, Dette has been on a mission to realize a new career in art.

She has produced boxes of drawings in recent years — from comic book characters inspired by the more than 3,000 DC and Marvel comics she has collected to realistic depictions of animals like lions, dogs and birds. Many of her illustrations are done meticulously on plain paper, but she said she will use anything as a canvas. She drew a portrait of four lions, meticulously detailed in pencil and pen, on paper towels.

"I've got to have a purpose. And I like a challenge. I set my sights on something and get it done," Dette said one recent morning at her home, looking over piles of drawings she has completed over the last few years.

Dette lives in a tidy, spartan apartment in the hills of Aztec by the municipal airport with her basset Lab, Molly. She's been a long-haul truck driver, a nutrition and behavior specialist for dogs, a cable saleswoman and a car hop. Earlier this year for a few months, she even served on the kitchen staff at Koogler Middle School in Aztec.

Dette's neighbors June and Red Reid agree Dette is a force to be reckoned with, but emphasize she is filled with kindness and has a big heart.

"We've known her about five years," June Reid said. "She pops by all the time. Three or four times a week she comes over and tells us what she's doing. There's always something going on with her. She'll bring her dog Molly over. She tells us everything that's going on. She gives us a run-down, and it's quite a list. She's one of a kind, a dear lady."

Dette was raised in a Catholic family in New Jersey, a precocious child among seven sisters and a brother. A self-described agnostic, Dette said her spirituality does not depend on attending church.

"I know God exists, but I don't believe in religion," she said. "God, sure. I'd like to check him out."

Dette may be ambivalent about church-going, but she didn't let that stand in the way when she was asked by some congregants at St. Joseph's Parish in Aztec to illustrate the cover of the Catholic church's golden jubilee recipe book in 1996. She sat down with a pen and paper in front of the bell tower facade and finished a representation that landed on the cookbook's cover.

Dette views work merely as a means to an end, not a 40-hours-a-week grind that goes on indefinitely. That philosophy was on display when her beloved 1960s yellow Volkswagen Beetle she had for 38 years finished its last mile a few years ago.

Dette found herself a vintage Schwinn Collegiate women's bicycle at a garage sale and pedaled it for the better part of a year to her job as a car hop at a local fast-food restaurant while saving money for another car.

"I went over to Sonic and said, 'I need a job where I can make tips. Snow! Rain! Ba-bah-ba-buh! Here I am,'" Dette said with the cadence of a chorus girl. "I worked there, earned $3,000, quit the job and got the car. It was time to go. Done."

Always eager to embrace new projects, Dette has plunged herself into more creative avenues these days, drawing cartoons for The Talon, Aztec's bimonthly community newspaper.

The Talon will publish a cartoon by Dette in its Dec. 1 issue, according to new publisher J.R. Sykes, who took over the newspaper earlier this year.

"I know Judy. The Talon is always looking for local contributors and talent, and it's always nice to come across someone like Judy," Sykes said. "I'm positive about where it could go. I love her. I think she's great, and she brings a lot to the table."

Dette has written short stories but never published them. Still, her literary sights are currently set on a novel she's working on about an Iraq War veteran suffering from the lingering stress of his experiences who is visited and helped by forest animals that can speak to him in English.

"They are forest animals that think like me," she said. "He's an ex-soldier who had a hard time in Iraq and, rather than some organization, these forest animals come around and help him out."

Dette was married for 30 years, but filed for divorce because she said her husband couldn't keep up with her.

But that doesn't mean Dette doesn't find herself attracted to the occasional older man.

"Now, Sean Connery — oh! I'll let him use my upstairs bathroom," she said. "He's old, but he's fabulous. That's not old, that's charming."

Though she says she is aware that her brassy personality and restlessness can be off-putting or overwhelming to some, Dette said she is happy with herself, content with her life and not ashamed to say so.

Lean and fit, Dette said she loves being active and participating in sports. When she was married, she used to ride her two horses in the hills of east Aztec every day and played a lot of tennis. She even coached a Farmington tennis league team for one season.

"We had a ball," she said. "We came in third, which was remarkable. A bunch of guys and me, and we had a fabulous year. And then that was it. OK, what next?" For now, Dette is hoping to do more with her art, dive into commissioned artwork projects and publish her cartoons. If it all fails, she said, it won't be painful. What bothers her is when anyone tells her something can't be tried.

"People say, "We can't do that,' and I say, 'Why not?' Don't rock the boat, do the same ol' thing. I love to rock the boat," she said with a laugh. "I'm still living in the '60s, and I'm a 12-year-old adult. I'm always growing and changing. Everything I do, I have to have a purpose, honey."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.