Gail R. O’Day, former Dean and Professor of New Testament and Preaching at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, died today, September 22, 2018. She was 63.
She served as dean from 2010 until June 30, 2018.
For more than 35 years, O’Day prepared religious leaders to teach, preach, and make a positive, enduring difference in congregations, schools, and communities. She became the Dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity in 2010, after serving as professor, scholar and dean at several other schools.
As Dean, O’Day led the Wake Forest School of Divinity into its second decade, establishing innovative programming and initiating curricular revisions that strengthened the School’s identity as a place where students are equipped “to be agents of justice, compassion and reconciliation in congregations and other ministry settings.”
O’Day is survived by her husband, Thomas Frank, Associate Dean for Continuing Studies and director for the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) Program and the Lifelong Learning Program of Wake Forest’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; her mother, Sally O’Day; and four sisters, a niece and a nephew.
“Gail O'Day was deeply committed to both scholarship and academic integrity. She had an unwavering dedication to students and proved to be a deft and able leader of faculty. I am grateful for all the ways that she was responsible for growing our School of Divinity in both stature and scope.” Nathan O. Hatch, President, Wake Forest University
“Additionally, Gail was wonderfully creative in her ability to relate the work of the School of Divinity with other dimensions of the University, resulting in new programs that met existing needs and were attractive to students and faculty alike,” Hatch continued. “The loss of her vision and voice from this campus community will be felt by all of us.”
O’Day had a keen awareness of and insight into the many challenges facing today’s religious leaders. She gave students ample space during their time in the Master of Divinity degree program to explore their passions and prepare for the vocational journeys that awaited them as pastors, chaplains, teachers, or leaders of non-profit organizations.
During her time as Dean, O’Day led the faculty and staff to expand and deepen not only the School’s communal identity but also its identity as a cutting-edge theological school. Since 2010, the School revised its curriculum to reflect a more interdisciplinary approach to the Master of Divinity degree, explored place-centered teaching and learning strategies, and strengthened its professional and vocational formation programs. The School now emphasizes critical historical and public issues, such as race and class, gender and sexuality, and religious pluralism, and encourages students to explore ways to connect these concerns with their identities as Gospel proclaimers, pastoral care providers, and teachers.
O’Day recognized early in her time as Dean the unique educational and leadership opportunities in North Carolina. Her vision led to the development of two of the School’s most successful professional development programs: Clergy Making a Place: Early Career Pastors as Generative Community Leaders, and the Food, Health, and Ecological Well-Being Program, the first of its kind in the United States.
“Amid deep sorrow, I feel immense personal gratitude for the visionary leadership of Gail O'Day, which is most evident in the academic, ministerial, and spiritual gifts abundant in our School of Divinity students and graduates.” Rogan Kersh, Provost, Wake Forest University
“Her support for our growing faculty, whose broad range of scholarly work and public presence has enhanced our entire University’s visibility and impact, has been unwavering,” Kersh continued. “It is little wonder that the Center for Faith and Service has recognized the School of Divinity under Gail’s leadership as one of a select number of ‘Seminaries that Change the World.’ She was a terrific partner in University strategic planning, a strong voice on our Deans’ Council, and a cherished friend.”
O’Day led efforts that doubled the School’s endowment and generated more than $23 million for scholarships, faculty support and operating funds. She also raised funds to reduce student debt and developed innovative programs to encourage students’ financial well-being.
O’Day was a team-builder, certain that the school would be at its strongest with a bright and creative staff member in every administrative position. Her efforts bore fruit in a dynamic, collaborative team that, together with an accomplished and growing faculty, generated a powerful common vision and mission remarkable for such a relatively young school.
“Gail was incredibly intelligent and had a quick sense of humor. She was a gifted and passionate teacher who treated all of her students with respect, seeing them as conversation partners and future colleagues,” said Lynn R. Huber, a former doctoral advisee of O’Day’s and Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University. “As one of her advisees in the PhD program at Emory University, she held all of us accountable for our work and expected the best from us. I believe this was her way of demonstrating her confidence in us as she helped to nurture our individual interests and talents. Gail continues to be a mentor to me, even though I’m now a full professor and have my own students to mentor. She is a faithful friend and a constant support.”
One of theological education’s most respected New Testament scholars, O’Day’s commitments to students and vocational formation are reflected in her scholarly work. She is perhaps best known for her research and writing about the Gospel of John. Over the course of her career, O’Day wrote numerous New Testament reference works and articles that are widely used by scholars and ministers, including Revelation in the Fourth Gospel (1986), the commentary on the Gospel of John in The New Interpreter’s Bible (1996), The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John (Chalice Press, 2002) and the co-authored Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: A Guide (Abingdon Press, 2007). O’Day also provided significant leadership in her discipline, serving as the general editor of the international Journal of Biblical Literature and on the editorial board of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Her work is notable for linking New Testament studies and scholarship with the academic discipline and ministerial practices of preaching. She has mentored numerous New Testament and homiletics doctoral students whose work and teaching have become influential in schools across the United States.
An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, O’Day earned degrees from Brown University (B.A.), Harvard University (M.T.S.), and Emory University (Ph.D.). She was also awarded a Doctor of Divinity honoris causa by Colgate University.
O’Day began her teaching career at Hamilton College in 1982 as an instructor in the religion department. From there she served at Eden Theological Seminary and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology prior to coming to Wake Forest.
“As I think about her illustrious career as a scholar, teacher, administrator, writer, and pastor, I am reminded that each of these are supported by her primary and truest identity - friend. Every facet of her work was undergirded by the strong sense of friendship and joy that she brought to each and every relationship. Her work as an educator, her leadership in the field of theological education and beyond, and, most of all, her friendship, are testimony to a vocation that ever expresses the awesomeness of God's grace for this world.” Andrew Hege (MDiv '14), Assistant to the Rector at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, KY
In 2014, O’Day became a member of the “4,000 Footers Club,” which meant she had – over the course of 45 years – hiked all 48 of the mountains above 4,000 feet in the state of New Hampshire. Her perseverance in climbing mountains was reflected in her distinguished career as a leader, scholar and theological educator, said Jill Crainshaw, Interim Dean of the School of Divinity.
“Gail was fierce and passionate in her devotion to theological education, Gospel proclamation, and ministry. She has journeyed far in her career and life and her feet have brought Gospel news to many people and places in many different ways.”
An outspoken and articulate advocate for theological education, O’Day helped the School of Divinity grow and thrive. Currently, more than 120 students are enrolled in its Master of Divinity program. She had a particular genius for creating a generous and welcoming hospitality, and the school has become a sustaining home base for hundreds of students and alumni from many different backgrounds and religious traditions, embracing all ethnicities and sexualities in a truly human community.
The vision she shared through her writing, teaching, and leadership continues to influence students, colleagues, and friends as they follow their own vocational pathways, carrying the transformative spirit of Gail O’Day into the wider world.
Before she stepped down as Dean of the School of Divinity, O’Day was honored by the establishment of the Gail R. O’Day Beloved Community Fund. The fund, established as a tribute to her leadership, received initial, significant commitments from several members of the School’s Senior Leadership Team who were then joined by several members of the School’s Board of Visitors. This endowed fund will provide financial support for activities that build the communal spirit of the School of Divinity, including weekly community worship services, shared meals and coffee hours, dialogue groups, and a variety of other opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to practice care and service.