Gail R. O’Day died on September 22, 2018, surrounded by the love and prayers of family and friends near and far. At the time of her death, she had been contending with the challenge of a glioblastoma brain tumor for nearly four years from the appearance of her first (unrecognized) symptoms. An avid hiker, she compared her challenge to the most treacherous trail she ever hiked in her beloved White Mountains of New Hampshire, and she met it with characteristic realism, fearlessness, strength, and resilience.
Gail was Professor of New Testament and Preaching at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, having just completed an eight-year term as Dean. Her deanship was devoted not only to building a creative and accomplished faculty, staff, and student body, but above all, to nurturing the school as a community for all people. She modeled a hospitality and openness that has made the School of Divinity a place of welcome and generosity, hard work and laughter, tough questions and searching conversation, in which people of many different traditions and backgrounds are summoned to ministries of justice, reconciliation, and compassion.
Gail Radcliffe O’Day was born on December 2, 1954, in Muhlenberg, New Jersey, where her mother, Sally Wilcox O’Day, was living while her father, Arthur F. O’Day, was serving in the Korean War. Upon his return the family settled in Sally’s hometown of Scituate, Massachusetts, where Gail grew up. From then on Gail almost never missed a summer visit to Scituate to walk on the beach or stroll out the boardwalks across her favorite marshes. In 1965 the family, now growing with the addition of Gail’s four sisters, moved to Chappaqua, New York, where Gail attended Horace Greeley High School.
Gail had two formative experiences during these years that shaped the rest of her life. She spent several summers at Camp Wyonegonic in Denmark, Maine, the oldest continuously operating girls camp in America. There she formed lifetime friendships that grew even deeper over time, resulting in dozens of cards, photos and notes from Wyo friends sent during her illness. She died with a Wyo pillow on her bed and a photo of Moose Pond and Pleasant Mountain on a bedside table.
At Wyonegonic she also met her lifelong friend Ruth Wyman Neagle of Cumberland, Maine, her companion in many adventures and family events. In 2014 Gail and Ruth reached the peak of the last of the 48 4000-foot mountains of New Hampshire, hikes that had begun 40 years before. Her certificate of completion hung proudly on her office wall.
The second formative experience was her college education at Brown University, where she graduated in 1976. Brown’s open curriculum and challenge to students to discover their own interests and passions became Gail’s model for the academic life of intellectual growth and engagement with social issues. She went on to attain a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Emory University.
After a year teaching at Hamilton College, Gail accepted a position in New Testament and Preaching at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO, in 1983, where her teaching and scholarship began to flourish. In 1987 she returned to Emory University, teaching in the Candler School of Theology and the Graduate Division of Religion. Here she completed a well-known commentary on the Gospel of John for the New Interpreters Bible widely acclaimed by pastors and scholars, and wrote or edited many books and articles on John, the New Testament, and preaching. She was a leader in the Society of Biblical Literature, serving a term as editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature and editing two book series. As a scholar recognized for her acute insights into the gospel, she spoke in academic and church events across the country. She was a rigorous and caring mentor to many students, especially doctoral candidates.
In 2003 she embarked on her administrative career, serving as Academic Dean of Candler for seven years. She considered administration an extension of her vocation of teaching and scholarship, and quickly became a widely respected academic leader known for her characteristic directness, fairness, and brilliance in solving problems. She was particularly alert to equity for women as they began to find their way into teaching and pastoral roles largely occupied by men in the past.
Wake Forest offered her the deanship of the School of Divinity in 2010. While she grieved departing from her Emory community, she saw an opportunity to lead the newest divinity school of any top-ranked American university as only its second Dean. Soon she was collaborating with an accomplished team of faculty and staff to launch innovative programs and attract major grants that brought the school into national prominence. She knew that a community as diverse as the School of Divinity must be built on trust and collegiality. Gatherings for meals and worship became central to the school’s educational mission.
Gail continued fulltime as Dean for a remarkable two years after her first brain surgery in 2015, integrating her treatments into her daily routines. Six weeks after her second surgery in 2017 she led her last hooding and commencement ceremonies. Even as she lost physical capacities in the months thereafter, she sustained her delight in conversation, her sharp wit, and her keen insights into people and institutions.
Gail lived in the same house on Westchester Drive in Decatur, GA, through her 23 years at Emory. In 1999 she married her friend and colleague of fourteen years, Tom Frank. The tight-knit community of Westchester neighbors became friends for life. Gail consumed novels, with a particular fondness for mysteries, often exchanging book recommendations with neighbors and friends. For many years she was known for her Newfoundlands who greeted visitors at the front door, blocked hallways, and flopped down beside the dinner table. In Winston-Salem Gail and Tom brought home their first Airedale Terrier; Phoebe livened up their household and offered great comfort as her illness progressed.
Shortly after their marriage, Gail and Tom bought a second home in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, where they enjoyed many summers and holiday seasons together among a community of friends and neighbors. Sugar Hill became Gail’s base for hiking and respite in a place of extraordinary beauty.
Gail’s father, Arthur F. O’Day, died in 2014. She is survived by her husband, Thomas Edward Frank; her mother, Sally Wilcox O’Day; four sisters, Wendy O’Day, Linda O’Day Kennedy and her husband Robert F. Kennedy, Susan O’Day, and Brooke O’Day; nephew Matthew Kennedy and niece Amanda Kennedy Dubiel and her husband Roman Dubiel; and two great-nieces, Justice Kennedy and Poppy Dubiel.
Gail’s extended family expresses deepest appreciation and gratitude to the talented doctors and staff of the Davis Cancer Center at Forsyth Medical Center and the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. We are particularly grateful for Dr. Elms Allen, who opened so many doors for Gail in the aftershock of her diagnosis; radiologist Dr. Volker Stieber who introduced her to a new technology that we are persuaded added many months to her life; and oncologist Dr. Glenn Lesser who treated her by every means possible in the last years of her life. The caregiver team from Piedmont Home Health brought much joy and comfort to Gail’s life in recent months.
A memorial service will be held in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University on Monday, October 8, at 1:30 p.m. Funeral services have been provided by Salem Funerals and Cremations. Memorial gifts may be designated for the Gail R. O’Day Beloved Community Fund of the Wake Forest School of Divinity, and mailed to Wake Forest University, Office of University Advancement, P. O. Box 7227, Winston-Salem, NC 27109, or donated online at http://go.wfu.edu/odayfund.