A chance meeting changed her life.
Born in Clyde in 1926 to Hampton and Lila Davis, Margaret Davis Fennell Judy was the youngest of six. Living in poverty, the odds were against her for making anything successful out of her life.
But when Judy met auto magnate and America’s first billionaire Henry Ford in the late 1930s, suddenly opportunities arose for the girl impoverished at birth.
Decades later, Judy’s autobiography, “Little Did I Know” will be available to the public during a release even from 2-7 p.m. March 19 at the John W. Stevens Wetlands Education Center in J.F. Gregory Park.
The autobiography chronicles her life from an impoverished family, to her extraordinary story as Ford’s protégé, as well as her roles of war bride, mother and business woman.
According to her son, Bob Fennell, Judy grew up in a home without water or electricity. But when Ford showed up unexpectedly at a chapel program at Martha Mary Chapel, now St. Anne Catholic Church, and heard Judy speak, everything changed.
“He was impressed,” Fennell said. “My mother never would have gotten a college education without Henry Ford. Right after school, Ford employed her. She became his secretary, and she never had to ride the bus again. Ford’s chauffeur picked her up and took her home every day.”
The book also focuses on Ford and the improvements he made to Judy’s adopted hometown of Richmond Hill, where she lived most of her life.
After 30 years writing the book with the help of Fennell, who worked as her editor for many years, Judy finished the project in the summer of 2013 — just three months before her death at age 87.
“She took a lot of time writing this book over the years,” Fennell said. “She would say she was finished with it, and then she’d remember something else that needed to be added.”
As Judy made changes, her son began to think the book would never be finished. Then finally three decades after starting the book, Judy said she was finished.
Fennell, however, didn’t believe it and figured his mother would return to making additions and edits just as before. But this time, Judy was truly done writing.
“I read it, and it’s beautiful,” Fennell said. “I didn’t change one word. Thirty years is a long time, but it’s finally being published.”
In March, on what would have been his mother’s 88th birthday, Fennell will host the book release, where first-edition copies of “Little Did I Know” will be available for purchase for $32.50.
Professor David L. Lewis, a renowned Ford historian who encouraged Judy throughout the 30 years she worked on the book, wrote the following review:
“’Little Did I Know’ is delightful reading and is filled with colorful stories and entertaining anecdotes about growing up in the South during the 1930s and 1940s. It is a highly-readable, heartwarming personal story and a mine of facts and impressions on one of the most important facets of Ford’s life and that of his wife, Clara.”
The autobiography, which shows it is possible to be in the right place at the right time, includes 256 pages of reminiscences of a Southern woman and storyteller, as well as more than 100 photos.
“Several books have been written about the Ford era,” Fennell said. “But my mother, as his secretary, she knew. She knew when the Fords moved out of the mansion, she knew the day Ford died, because she lived it. She was there.
“People say Ford had a boat, but my mother knew the boat. She knew his little boat was called Lulu. This book is full of truth because she was there.”