It Takes Two: Judy and Sean Palfrey

Judith S. “Judy” Palfrey ’67 and John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67 are the Adams House Masters. Judy is a professor ...
By Maya Jonas-Silver

Judith S. “Judy” Palfrey ’67 and John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67 are the Adams House Masters. Judy is a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Sean is a clinical professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine. FM talked with the two of them and heard each side of their story (the interview has been edited for concision).


“Judy was born in Texas and she quotes that when it’s convenient. She lived there for about six weeks. Part of her family was from New Orleans and she quotes that too when it’s convenient. She grew up in Baltimore and always wanted to be a doctor.

Then she came here, decided to concentrate in American history and literature, and had a wonderful time doing that.

She had a number of gorgeous roommates, and I was going out with one of them. And when, one night, she couldn’t go out with me to a Dylan Thomas play called “Under Milkwood,” I asked her if any of her roommates would like to go to the play. Judy said yes, so we went out, and that was the start of it.

The first class we took together was Physics. I liked to sit up at the front, and she never got to class on time. It was a mark of her commitment to me that she would walk all the way down the long stairs of the amphitheater-type classroom to sit in the front row.

The summer after we graduated, in 1967, I was with the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society touring the world and giving concerts. So Judy and my mother came to meet us. I think Judy had a little bit of shell shock from traveling with my mother, who was an enormous character.

But we survived all our various trials and tribulations and got married two days after I came back from the world tour. Two days later, she started medical school and I started graduate school, so it was a whirlwind.

Judy was one of 20 US citizens who were invited to Canada to run with the Olympic torch. She ran up the roads and people were cheering—it was really fun. You don’t have to run: you could be in a wheelchair, some people swam, some people dog sledded, some people ran backwards. She kind of half-ran, half-danced, half-walked and just sort of had a good time.

She loves to dance. She is also very good at playing the kazoo. In the 75th anniversary festival that we had for Adams House four or five years ago, she was right there in the front of the parade with the Harvard band and with all sorts of flags and stuff. And there Judy was, playing whatever they were playing on the kazoo.

We try to get to as many events and particular activities as we can here, but sometimes that means we don’t go together to them. We function almost completely in an overlapping way as House Masters. Like so many other things in our lives, it just works that we’re partners in everything we do.”


“You know, it’s funny: he used to walk around Cambridge with just a light sweater and a scarf on and I remember thinking he was very handsome and good looking, and that he was a guy who could be out in the cold with just a little scarf on. I remember that image.

He also had a lovely way of walking, which he still does, and I remember just being struck by how he holds himself, how he moves.

In my family, we weren’t particularly tuned in to music. I think most of my family is sort of tone-deaf, and I remember him opening up a whole world that I’d never known before. That’s the kind of thing he does: he’s so engaged with art and music and light and color, and he’s always pointing out the beautiful things.

One of his favorite things he always says is: ‘Walk on the sunny side of the street.’ And if you get yourself down, you’re not looking around, but then you think, ‘Huh, Sean says to walk on the sunny side of the street.’ You cross the street and all of a sudden things are sort of bright, beautiful, and lovely.

Traveling with Sean’s mother—we had a funny experience on that trip. It was August 15, a very busy day. People were traveling; there were billions of people on the trains. Her suitcase got lost from us and she was anxious, and so she didn’t mind pulling the emergency brake. She stopped the train! And they made us walk off.

Fortunately, our host was the Minister of Travel for France, so we didn’t get thrown in jail—but as we walked down this long, long, long train, all the people were leaning out of the train and they went: ‘Imbéciles! Imbéciles!’ You fools, you fools!

But I loved him and I loved her so we went ahead and got married.

We have some lovely friends called the Forbeses; they live on an island. And so one time we were with the Forbes family, singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs and having an enormously good time, then all of a sudden my son—I think he was five—was just laughing so much that he fell off the back of a chair and broke his arm.

We were trying to get him off this island and to a hospital but it was night and there was this pea-soup fog, and we actually couldn’t get through until the next morning because the fog was so thick. So Sean splinted it and got Tylenol and took complete care and everything was just fine. He was a wonderful daddy and a wonderful doctor and very calm during something of a harrowing evening.

How do people have a marriage of 44 years? What we’ve discovered is we continue to fall in love, keep finding those little connections that are special. And something we’ll often say is maybe just going to do an errand, just going to CVS, just going to pick something up at the Star Market—just being together and doing that is more fun than practically anything.”

In The Meantime