In Memoriam: The Rev. Dr. Gail O’Day

You might not be surprised to see a purple streak in the hair of a student — but you probably would be intrigued to see one in the hair of a faculty member and administrator.

The Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day brought the same energy and creativity to Wake Forest as she did to her coiffure.

A renowned New Testament and homiletics scholar, as well as a beloved professor and mentor, O’Day died on Saturday, Sept. 22 after contending with a glioblastoma brain tumor for nearly four years.

Her eight-year tenure as the second dean of the School of Divinity resulted in a more vibrant program with deep community engagement, increased student enrollment and expanded faculty size.

Her hospitality and openness fostered an environment — one of welcome and generosity, hard work and laughter, tough questions and searching conversation — in which people of many different traditions and backgrounds were (and continue to be) summoned to ministries of justice, reconciliation and compassion.

“I am grateful for all the ways that she was responsible for growing our School of Divinity in both stature and scope,” said President Nathan Hatch. “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. The loss of her vision and voice from this campus community will be felt by all of us.”

Holding a Ph.D. in New Testament from Emory University and ordained by the United Church of Christ, O’Day served on the faculties of Hamilton College, Eden Theological Seminary and most recently the Candler School of Theology at Emory University before coming to Wake Forest University in 2010. Over an illustrious career in academia, she became a respected authority on the Gospel of John, authoring a well-known commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible, serving as a general editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature, and publishing many other articles and books.

This interest in the Gospel of John transcended her research, forming a basis for much of her professional vocation, pedagogy, and ministerial presence. She wrote extensively on the gospel’s theme of friendship, an identity she embodied well.  This is especially evident in the reflections of former and current members of the Wake Forest community, noting the variety of ways in which O’Day has impacted each and every one of them.

“As I think upon 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,” said alumnus Andrew Hege (M.Div. ’14). “Every facet of her work has been undergirded by the strong sense of friendship and joy that she brings 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.”

Dr. John Senior, Associate Teaching Professor at the School of Divinity, reflects, “The last three years have been, for me, a process of coming to terms with the pending loss of a beloved dean, mentor, colleague and friend who was instrumental in creating space for me to live into my deepest sense of purpose and calling at Wake Forest. I’ve not at all ‘come to terms’ with that loss yet. But I continue to be grateful for the many ways that Gail, from our first encounter at Emory, opened up opportunities for me, despite not really knowing me all that well at that time. What an incredible and gracious gift. Not to mention that learning to be a teacher, administrator, and scholar amidst the wide and creative vision that Gail cast for the School of Divinity was an enjoyable, invigorating, and, at times, exhausting experience. I miss you deeply, friend. Rest in peace.”

Graduate student Meagan McNeely (M.Div. ’19) wrote, “I heard someone say that the way of Jesus is a well-worn path because of people like Dean O’Day, and I couldn’t say anything more true. I’m going to miss her personal mentorship as well as the mentorship she provided to others I consider to be mentors.  This woman’s kind heart, intelligence, and gentleness have impacted my life, and the lives of others, more than she would ever know. Thank you, Dean O’Day.”

Alumna Anna Holladay (M.Div. ’15) reflected on a formative course she took on the Gospel of John, offered by O’Day:

“On the first day … she showed us picture after picture of her trips to places important in the gospel writer’s life and death. Her passion could not be contained and as she shared with us, she started crying.

“She taught us that life everlasting didn’t begin when you died, it was something to claim in the everydayness of this life,” Holladay continues. “Through her life, we saw an example of life everlasting, a life so full that it spilled out to others. As she is now in a different kind of life everlasting, I will always be grateful for the care she had for all her students.”

While the Wake Forest community grieves the loss of a visionary leader, it continues to thrive, thanks in no small part to her legacy of friendship and servant-leadership.

May she rest in peace.