Judi. Miss Judi. Momma. Mrs. Burns.

If someone referred to her as president and publisher of the Index-Journal, clearly that someone did not know Judi Burns too well.

Sure, she was a rare breed. Women owners and publishers of newspapers are few and far between. But Judi was never hung up on such matters. After all, she took the lead role at The Index-Journal Co. after her mother’s death in 1998. That’s what family-owned means. That’s what family-owned does. She grew up here. The newspaper was like a second home.

And the newspaper’s employees? Well, they certainly were employees, but they were also like family. Yes, like any family some might have been closer than others, but even those you might call “distant family through marriage” were family if they worked here.

Around here, she was Judi. Or Miss Judi. Or Mrs. Burns. And for some of us, she was affectionately referred to as Momma or Mom. Former associate editor Scott J. Bryan is a good bit younger than I, which is why he usually used the endearing “Mom” term when talking with Judi.

For me, the relationship began as strictly professional. I came to Greenwood from the corporate newspaper world where handshakes were rare and hugs were never shared between editor and publisher.

Judi, however, was a person first and a newspaper publisher second. It didn’t take long for that to grow on me, either. She was like a combination of older sister and mom, all rolled into one.

We have laughed together, cried together. We have shared news about our families, celebrating the happy moments, mourning the sad. Most every day she and I would have nice chats, mostly about anything other than the news and the business of the paper. We’d reserve that for the weekly managers meetings on Tuesdays.

Mostly we’d talk about our weekends, food, recipes, our children — Mundy, St. Claire and Alison, don’t worry; the stories are safe with me — grandchildren and our beloved pets. We would compare stories at times, but the conversations often had tidbits of wisdom and advice peppered in them. That’s why Judi was a cross between sister and Momma for me.

Back in June 1999, I came here to interview for the job of managing editor. I remember perching in a wingback chair in her office for a chat. I wasn’t sure what to expect. We talked about newspapers and the job, but we also went off on a tangent about something we shared in common, a disdain for the PC and a love for the Mac, or Apple computers. That was probably my first hint about how the relationship might be.

On Aug. 9, 1999, I walked into the newsroom to be the paper’s managing editor. I was still tentative about the move because I had gone from being what my publisher in Florence termed “institutional knowledge” to being one of five expenses on the bottom line that had to be cut. That was my first taste of unreciprocated loyalty.

All those layers of corporate ownership I had grown accustomed to and wary of quickly peeled away. There was no corporate morass to wade through here. If Judi said it, that was it. And she nearly always said it in a good way. No, you did not want to get on Judi’s bad side, but the good thing is that it wasn’t really hard to avoid doing that. Oh, there was one time in particular when I goofed on something — had a misunderstanding, if you will. She set aside her usual Southern genteel demeanor, stood at my door and firmly asked, “Can I see you in my office? Now?”

That sticks with me mostly because through the years our conversations, while professional as needed, were mostly those shared by friends. Shared by family. An only child, Judi was fiercely independent, and to some, she might have seemed distant — a steel magnolia, if you will. But she loved and cared in her own way.

I’ve missed those conversations for several weeks now and I’ll miss them from now on. But I will long smile as I recall the times we swapped stories about our kids and grandkids, the moments we shared in the joys of marriages, the sorrows of deaths.

I will smile because Momma Judi has been a part of my life for 20 years.

Whiting is executive editor of the Index-Journal. Contact him at 864-943-2522; email rwhiting@indexjournal.com, or follow him on Twitter at IJEDITOR. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.