May 24, 2023 | Alumni
The most romantic debate: U of T alumna shares the story behind her surprise proposal
By Megan Mueller
The 1988 wedding of Judy Bradt and J.J. Gertler took place in the Debates Room at Hart House.
Hart House is all about student engagement … in more ways than one. At the final round of a debate at the House in October 1987, J.J. Gertler got on bended knee to propose to his partner Judy Bradt (BA 1982, SMC). With a flair for drama, he caught the ring box tossed to him by Judy’s brother Dave, in cahoots. The crowd of 200 burst into applause when Judy said yes.
A few months later, on February 13, 1988, the couple was married in the same spot: the Debates Room at Hart House. “There wasn't going to be any other place,” Judy says.
The two celebrated 35 years of marriage last February.
Judy shares her story and starts at the beginning: A student at St. Michael’s College, she earned a General Arts degree and enjoyed a wide variety of courses, including French, German, philosophy, psychology, even calculus.
She also participated in Canada’s oldest student exchange, the Hart House Finnish Exchange, a three-month intercultural program. Here, she travelled to Finland in 1981. “I was part of that community, which was a remarkable experience,” she says. Judy also knew Audrey Hozack, for whom the Audrey Hozack Student Leadership Award was created, through the Exchange and recalls her with great fondness.
Judy and J.J. were introduced by friends, Paula and Geoff Buerger, at the World University Debating Championships, which U of T hosted in 1982. J.J., a two-time U.S. National Champion, was competing for Amherst College. From there, the couple corresponded for six years – a mountain of letters is evidence of this, a growing love story.
At the time of the now-infamous debate/engagement, Judy had been active on the Committee for four years and had returned to judge at the Hart House Invitational. Despite the flurry of letters flying back and forth between Canada and the U.S., she and J.J. had not spent that much time together. “Over the six years between the time we met and the time we married we saw each other rarely until 1987. That year, we were able to visit with increasing frequency, but were never able to do that for longer than four days at a time,” Judy explains.
The wedding in the Debates Room was modest. “We were married in front of 20 people, our immediate family and the people who introduced us, who were also debaters,” she recounts. The guests enjoyed an intimate dinner in the Gallery Grill and afterward the newlyweds invited 50 people to join in for dancing in the Music Room.
Judy’s new life in the U.S. was good. She has had a remarkable career. She moved to Washington DC to join J.J. just before they were married. She had been working at IBM Canada, but she landed a job at the Trade Commissioner Service in Washington.
Ken Mark, Chair of the Finnish Exchange Committee, was instrumental in facilitating this career move. “Without the Finnish Exchange, I never would've made the connection with the job that launched my career,” says Judy.
Over the next 15 years, she became an expert in helping Canadian companies win American federal contracts. “I built my practice of business consulting over those years. I wore out three sets of luggage, crisscrossing Canada, talking to a lot of companies, advising folks.
“I worked with some innovative managers, had a lot of fun, got to do some unconventional projects, including creating what became the Businesswomen and Trade program with what's now Global Affairs Canada. I looked around and said why don't we ever see any women business owners? Why don't we do something about that? It was a very cool career.”
J.J. is a defense and aerospace analyst. “There was a point at which we both had Pentagon passes and security clearances, which was kind of fun!” she says, laughing.
Reflecting on her U of T and Hart House experiences, she says, “I loved the House, everything about it. I loved the way it smelled, the way it looked, the sense of community I felt walking through the doors.
“Hart House was my home, where my strongest sense of community was. The friends I made there are still my friends 40 years later. They are still my people, even though we are many miles apart.”
It spoke to her principles. “For me, the House represented a place where people with differing views could come together. And that’s a fundamental value for me and my husband. It stood for everything we stood for.”
Judy also appreciated the opportunities at Hart House, the support from staff to set up a completely student-run experience. The Committee, which upholds the principles of free speech and debate, and serves as a platform for social and political discourse, was appealing because it attracted everyone from opera singers to politicians to ministers of finance.
“It was a very cool way to meet interesting people and see their off-stage personas,” she says. Memorable discussions occurred here. “Those were really deep, intimate conversations. It felt very special.”