In May 2019, Concordia Seminary was actively seeking a new coordinator to reinvent and manage its health and wellness program, which had previously been minimally focused on overseeing student wellness, athletics and the Seminary’s historic field house.
At the same time, Dr. Julie Gary was looking for something to connect her expertise in public health, her passion for serving others and her faith. But she was not necessarily looking for a new job. She happened to see Concordia Seminary’s opening for a health and wellness coordinator in an announcement at her church and, on a whim, contacted the Seminary. With a master’s degree in public health and a Ph.D. in epidemiology from Saint Louis University, she was beyond qualified.
She was offered the job after one phone interview. “I liked the idea of a clean slate, to build up a health and wellness program basically from scratch,” Gary says. And because the position was part-time, she would be able to maintain the other aspects of her career, including teaching public health courses at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I’ve come to believe God sent you here.”
–Dr. Dale A. Meyer
And then came 2020. Suddenly, less than a year into her work, having someone with her expertise overseeing the health of the Concordia Seminary campus community was nothing short of a godsend. In a “Word and Work: An Intersection” video interview with Gary on concordiatheology.org, President Emeritus Dr. Dale A. Meyer confesses, “In view of everything that’s happened with coronavirus, I’ve come to believe God sent you here. I have no doubt about that.”
By March 2020, Gary was closely monitoring everything that was happening with COVID-19 and the emerging pandemic, and she became the Seminary’s point person for the task force that was formed to address all the complex health issues that were arising, which included making decisions about in-person versus distance learning and developing whole systems for monitoring any outbreaks of illness. Decisions needed to be made minute by minute, day by day, and it brought together everything Gary has learned in her accomplished and varied life and career.
She was born in Hannibal, Mo., and raised on a farm there until she was 12 years old. She then moved with her family to Pontiac, Ill., where she graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class and as an all-state athlete in volleyball and basketball. Those achievements led her to the University of Notre Dame where she was a pre-med major and enrolled in the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Raised Catholic, Notre Dame was a special place for Gary and her family.
After graduating from Notre Dame, she served active duty in air defense artillery for 13 years. She was deployed for two years to eight different countries in the Middle East, serving as a battery commander. In that work, she found herself taking on tasks frequently related to public health and medicine, which fed her passion for health
After her active-duty commitment, she then pursued graduate work in public health and epidemiology. As a result, she finished her military service by working at a Veterans Affairs hospital studying liver disease, in particular following Vietnam veterans who suffered from hepatitis.
Faith has always been Gary’s touchstone. About 15 years ago, she began attending Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Collinsville, Ill. It started when her neighbors encouraged her to consider Good Shepherd’s elementary school for her three children, all of whom eventually graduated from Good Shepherd. Her oldest, Isaiah, is an adult; Elijah is now in college; and her daughter, Jordan, is in high school, looking ahead to a collegiate career in soccer. About six years ago, things came full circle when she began to coach basketball at Good Shepherd, mentoring girls in both faith and life. She also coaches basketball at Collinsville High School.
Not long after she began working at Concordia Seminary, life took another twist that tested her faith. “During my time at the Seminary, I lost my husband, Dr. Louis A. Gary, to a sudden heart attack. And my kids and I wouldn’t be doing as well as we are these days without the community of faith I’ve found here,” she says. “God sent me to help with the coronavirus, but God has helped me through Concordia Seminary. My faith has strengthened through this experience.” Even months later, she still receives handwritten notes and emails from students, faculty and staff, filled with Scripture and encouragement.
These days, her work is still filled with daily reactions and decisions related to the pandemic: monitoring the health of the campus community; offering up-to-date public health guidance; looking ahead to protocols for future events; and managing the constant flow of texts, calls and emails with questions, concerns and test results. She estimates that 90% of her work now is related to the coronavirus. In the future, she is looking forward to actually doing what she first came to Concordia Seminary to do, to build up a substantive health and wellness program, making the campus a healthier place to live, work and study, and planning ahead for whatever comes next.
To watch the full interview between Dr. Julie Gary and Dr. Dale A. Meyer, visit concordiatheology.org/2020/04/responding-to-covid-19/.