One of a Kind
The unwieldy head, with its single white horn and tri-color mane, towers and bobs. The inflated torso overwhelms her body. She gets someone to turn on the video on their phone, then prances a bit. Her arms curve forward like the vestigial front limbs of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. But she is no dinosaur. She is a unicorn. A unicorn whose name would be Julie Pryde, BSW ’91, MSW ’92, MPH ’17 UIS, head administrator for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
It’s early on Halloween morning and dozens of Pryde’s 200-member staff have, like her, arrived in costume. Scarecrows, giraffes, clowns, tigers, a rabbit, more unicorns and a guy with blue hair make their way through the building’s warren of corridors to the quarterly staff meeting, coincidentally set for today. A vampire stands at the door of the big conference room like a maître d’, cordially welcoming all creatures, handing out bottled water. A coven of witches cackles by a window. The room fills, the clock runs past the appointed time of 8 a.m., and the meeting begins. The agenda has its own scary features, like vaping and lung injuries. Staffers deliver info: immunizations, family planning, oral health, syringe exchanges, flex spending plans for employees, the district’s coming work for the 2020 U.S. Census.
When the head of IT starts talking cybersecurity, Pryde sees an opening. “If an email comes from Nigeria, don’t click on it,” she advises the room. “The Nigerian prince is not your friend.” People laugh and Pryde grins, her face like a small medallion on the unicorn’s white chest. The costume couldn’t be funnier or better appreciated. But, frankly, it is hot. The hole for her face keeps slipping down over her eyebrows. It is white. A happy unicorn color, but one that blends strangely into the pale walls of the conference room. And it is, obviously, huge. Halloween day is starting to look very long. “I need to let some of the air out,” she confides. “So I can move.”
The costume may be hilarious, but the work could not be more serious—work that centers on life and death. Disease prevention, food safety, water quality and septic system certification—these are the purview of departments of public health, including CUPHD. For Pryde, the mission of public health extends beyond these areas and into social justice and basic human rights. “Everyone,” she famously repeats, “is entitled to food, clothing and shelter.” Under her leadership, the district’s core functions have branched into a vibrant, organic network of services—ranging from immunizations, a children’s dental clinic and emergency relief to support for expectant and new mothers, food and clothing for those in need, and free books and car seats for children.
Post-Halloween, at a meeting in her office—her desk piled a half-foot deep with documents and correspondence, walls adorned with photographs and diplomas, well-laden bookshelves greened by a brave but solitary potted plant—Pryde talks through the enormous concerns facing public health in the 21st century and the challenges of her job. “Any time you deal in sex and drugs,” she says, “things [become] controversial.” She points to a colorful pile in one corner of her office—costumes, which (clearly) she loves to wear, including a penis costume that she dons for gay pride parades and other events. “People flock to me for selfies. And I say, ‘Yeah, you can get a selfie. But first, do you know about PrEP?’ [a method to protect against HIV infection].”
The costume is emblematic of the unlikely start of her career. In the late 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was coming to the forefront, killing more and more people. “The horror stories really caught my attention and were very upsetting to me,” Pryde recalls. She quit her job as a graphic designer and began a one-woman community outreach and education campaign, driving to Chicago to pick up gay newspapers and other literature about the epidemic and bringing them back to Champaign-Urbana to distribute. Pryde’s passion to save lives led her to the U of I School of Social Work, and then to a job in the CUPHD infectious disease unit, which she eventually led. When the district’s head administrator abruptly left in 2007, Pryde took over on an interim basis. The CUPHD board appointed her to the top post the following year.
Over three decades, Pryde has seen AIDS nearly vanquished while other threats have improbably resurged. “At the beginning, it never occurred to me that HIV would be at a place where we could get over it. It was too bleak then to dream that big,” she observes. “But when I started my career in public health, I also would have assumed that by now I wouldn’t be working with tuberculosis, I wouldn’t be working with syphilis, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be working with people who don’t vaccinate their kids.” Today, she is wearing a blue T-shirt with marine mammals that puns: “You OTTER vaccinate.”
Scarier still is the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections. “If you want to disrupt your sleeping patterns, try reading about what infections and diseases were like pre-antibiotics,” Pryde observes with a solemn frown. “We don’t know what kind of emergencies could happen. But there are certain things that really scare us. A novel [antibiotic-resistant] influenza is pretty scary.”
CUPHD campaigns have ranged from vigorous to furious depending on the outbreak. When H1N1—a.k.a. swine flu—hit Illinois in 2009, Pryde and her staff went to the mattresses, establishing an incident command structure based on fire service protocols and action plans derived from the regular drills that are part of life at CUPHD. On-site vaccinations for the public included a drive-through clinic that attracted clients from as far away as Chicago. “We had six or eight lanes of traffic in the parking lot—people going through and getting shots without having to get out of their cars,” Pryde recalls. “I got up on the roof, and I could see that we had cars backed up all the way down I-74 to I-57 [almost two miles].”
Going “roof-top” is emblematic of Pryde’s talent for big-picture perspectives. Over the years, she has gotten out in front of outbreaks, including bird flu, measles, mumps, Legionnaires’ disease, Zika virus, and problems ranging from bedbugs, vaping and “fake weed” to slashes in state funding and political threats to Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. She has contributed to articles in The Journal of Infectious Diseases and to reports published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CUPHD is committed to a range of research projects with the University of Illinois, including the Institute for Genomic Biology’s campaign to map the genome of gonorrhea, which is evolving resistance to most current antibiotics. “Research,” she says, “is at the core of everything we do.”
Recognition and honors have walked alongside funny costumes, irreverent observations and tough responsibilities. In 2017, Pryde was invited to join the Kresge Foundation’s Emerging Leaders in Public Health Fellows Program. Last July, the district was named Local Health Department of the Year by the National Association of County and City Health Officials. And in January, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker invited Pryde to serve on the State Board of Health.
“The first word that comes to my mind with Julie is: ‘fearless,’” observes Kresge administrator Phyllis Meadows. “She’s very courageous in her approach to the work and is willing to take on new roles and new opportunities. I love being around her because she always has great ideas.”
CUPHD has grown enormously under Pryde’s leadership, with operations expanding to fill the 99,000-square-foot facility that the district moved into two years before she became head. The building winds through labyrinthine corridors behind key-carded doors. Medical exam rooms include several designed for children, one of which features aqua-colored walls and painted fish and overhead lighting panels that resemble an aquarium. “We try to make this a non-scary experience for kids,” Pryde says, as she leads a walking-intensive tour of her realm.
A lactation support room is hung with posters that hilariously evoke women’s breasts—daisies, two scoops of ice cream with cherries. A teaching kitchen offers classes for new mothers and others who need to learn how to cook. Four wet labs handle tests for pregnancy and communicable diseases: one is devoted to research on mosquitoes and West Nile virus. There’s a tidy employee break room and a modest workout area for staff members. There are HR and finance offices. “They help keep me out of jail,” she jokes of the latter. And environmental health, which does restaurant inspections.
“Our least popular division,” Pryde notes wryly. “But I find that people don’t complain when they don’t get diarrhea.”
A garage houses a big, artwork-daubed mobile unit, which steams forth to do STD testing, drop supplies at soup kitchens and take laborers to job sites. Donated clothing is staged here, as are child car seats, given out for free at periodic installation events. A delivery bay is stacked with comestibles, bound for the food pantry and community. Community outreach is robust. Case workers call on a range of clients, from new moms and their babies, teens and young adults and families to clients at risk from AIDS. Often, these staffers bring along donated food and clothing on their calls. A team faithfully goes to the county jail to immunize inmates.
In emergencies, field work rises exponentially. When a tornado destroyed the little Illinois town of Gifford in 2013, CUPHD monitored relief services, picked up trash, and watched for lost and potentially dangerous animals.
For Pryde, the impact of public health is enduring as well as expansive. She likes to point out that the settlement house movement, pioneered in Chicago at the turn of the last century by Jane Addams, started around the same time as public health programs. “It had to do with slums and overcrowding and immigration. People were being exploited. Diseases were breaking out,” she says. “The changes instituted by the public health movement have led to the biggest increase ever in life expectancy—way beyond anything discovered by medical science.”
The tour concludes at the lobby, where office suites handle most of the district’s onsite clients. One division is devoted to mothers and children. Another provides health services such as pregnancy testing, STD prevention and tobacco-cessation support. A dental clinic serves 8,000 kids a year. An improbable little county bureau administers both birth and death certificates.
The lobby also is the site of a twice-weekly food pantry, now underway. Volunteers from the Muslim Group of Champaign County, which organizes the giveaway, are stocking portable shelves with donated bread and vegetables, and stacking packaged salads, coleslaw mix, fruit and juice into a refrigerated cabinet. Clients arrive, settling into seats ranged along one wall to await noon when food distribution begins. Here are seniors, single men, a very young couple, an elderly dad and grown daughter, people in wheelchairs, mothers with babies and young children. Pryde hands out slap bracelets to the kids and offers them children’s books, which are donated and shelved in the lobby for free distribution. One child asks if he may have more than two, the usual limit. “I’m the boss,” Pryde tells him, “and I say you can take as many as you want.”
At noon, the clients step up by ones and twos to gather groceries and take them home. Dozens of people are here, and dozens more will pour in over the next two hours. On some Tuesdays and Thursdays, the queue overwhelms the lobby and verges toward the adjoining office suites. As the clients come and go, volunteers continuously replenish the stores of food. “We’ve never run out,” Pryde says. “If there’s extra, we distribute it out in the community.” By her estimate, the pantry has given away a million pounds of food in the past three years—not counting the ton or two that volunteers grow each summer in 30 raised garden beds on CUPHD grounds. Her plans call for transforming the lobby into a community café, furnishing it with comfortable tables and chairs. Already, it draws people with free pop-up services, provided alongside the food pantries. Today, diabetes screenings are available. On other Tuesdays and Thursdays, there are flu vaccinations, blood pressure monitoring, classes on healthy eating. “Julie is a big believer in one-stop shopping,” notes Candi Crause, a long-time CUPHD staffer. “Why expect people to come back several times when you can find a way to provide the services they need in a single visit?”
Pryde is in motion, wheeling out more shelves of produce, stocking the refrigerated cabinet with perishables, greeting clients, chatting with staffers. “She is not an administrator,” says Minoo Roghani, who is there overseeing the food pantry on behalf of the Muslim Group of Champaign County. “She helps people.”
This is the leadership of Julie Pryde—bold, principled, empathetic, energetic, funny. One of a kind.
A true unicorn.