Written by Jenna Flynn
To say it was a privilege to interview and write this article about Judy Burrows, my current manager, would be an understatement. Four years ago, I walked into an interview with Judy and some of her fellow team members and I just knew this is where I wanted to work — and with that group of people. (Lucky for me, the feeling was mutual.)
Judy Burrows has been a supportive and inspiring mentor to many over the years and has whole-heartedly dedicated herself to the mission and vision of Marathon County. Her humble leadership style has not gone unnoticed. This county is truly a better place to live, work, visit, and do business because of the hard work and passion she has poured into her work over the past 29 years.
The timing of our interview for this profile on her was fitting. You see, she and I were also thinking about the Healthy Marathon County (HMC) Alliance meeting that was to take place the following day. Judy was preparing to facilitate a discussion — something she’s done hundreds of times over her career, but took a step back from doing that when she moved into her management role. She has taken pride in mentoring and watching the Public Health Educators she oversees do this very same work she is so passionate about. Her being assigned to facilitate during her very last meeting with HMC, a group she’s been involved with for years, brought a sense of nostalgia to our discussion.
As part of the organizational development of the Marathon County Health Department, all employees have completed the Gallup CliftonStrengths Finder Assessment. This is done in an effort to better understand the individuals whom we work with. Judy’s top-5 strengths are:
If you were to read these off to some of her closest colleagues, it’s certain that there would be many head nods, thinking Yep, that’s Judy.
Judy is known for being able to easily make connections with our health priorities and program work. At any given time, she could come up with several ideas about one topic at a single meeting. So many ideas, in fact, that she’s asked members of our team to pull her out of her “Ideas rabbit hole” at times. Futuristic and Strategic are key strengths for public health leaders, and these traits come naturally to Judy.
As I said, nostalgia felt like the theme of our discussion as I observed Judy reflect on her time with Marathon County. We moved through a series of questions that brought up many memories.
I started off by saying:
“Well, this is weird. You have a week left to work.”
She pondered and smiled, saying:
“I swear I will wake up one morning in June and think, Now what?
I joked with Judy and asked:
“29 years… Why not stay for 30 and make it sound like, well, 30?”
She joked back:
“Because it would sound like 30 instead of 29! That was not a badge of honor I was looking to gain. It was just time.”
We jumped right in to the good stuff when we discussed some of the most meaningful work she’s done in public health and Marathon County. She shared:
“Three things immediately come to mind… [First,] the work with tobacco control and prevention and smoke-free air — policy maker education; the movement of city and county ordinances; and, ultimately, smoke-free air for the entire state of Wisconsin.”
Judy has been a key leader in Wisconsin for Smoke-Free Air legislation and has led many statewide tobacco prevention and control efforts and coalitions. Judy served as Chair of Smoke-Free Wisconsin, the statewide tobacco prevention coalition, for many years. Wisconsin will be celebrating 11 years of smoke-free air this July. (View the 10-year celebration video here.)
She pondered a second topic of pride:
“The work we did in creating the bike route system with CPZ [Conservation, Planning & Zoning Department]. It really started to change the environment on the roadways, making Marathon County bike-friendly. It was a huge project and involved a lot of partners. It started with a grant and building partnerships.”
Lastly, she talked about the evolving Public Health Educator role:
“Health education was seen as a t-shirt and water bottle type of thing, attending health fairs. We changed all of that — We worked on policy. We worked on how you create a space you really want to live, work, and play, in.”
Judy founded the Chronic Disease Prevention Team (now called the Community Health Improvement Team) at the Marathon County Health Department and has served as the Program Director for the majority of her career, leading a team of Health Educators doing disease prevention work in Marathon County.
Judy asked me specifically that this wouldn’t be a spotlight article about her (this is another example that speaks to her humble style), but she was happy to talk about advances in public health and about Marathon County.
With that said, I still believe that it’s fully appropriate to give some recognition to Judy since she was a key person for making both public health and Marathon County great over the last 29 years.
She would never talk about this, but I’ll share that Judy has been responsible for bringing literally millions of grant dollars into Marathon County to support building healthier communities and improving local public health, including:
- Drug-Free Communities Support Program
- Tobacco Prevention and Control Program
- Transform Wisconsin Grant
- Wisconsin Partnership Program
- Medical College of Wisconsin Advancing Behavioral Health in Wisconsin
I asked what Judy will miss most about Marathon County, and she reflected thoughtfully:
“The people here are like family. Some I’ve spent more time with than I have with [some of my own] family members. What I love about working for the County is there is such a variety of what we do. There is great depth to the services we offer. Whether it’s the legal system or social services, the highway [department] or library, you get to work with all of these different people who are a reflection of the community. I appreciate the connectedness of the work. It ultimately contributes to a good place to live. I love that.
If you like being active in your community, then working for the County is a great option. I don’t just live here, I work here, and I play here. Things are intertwined. Working with other people in other departments really gave me the mindset of: I don’t just work for the Health Department, I work for the County. I’ve had great learning experiences to have a greater understanding of how many services we provide and how many really good people work here.”
We talked about what Judy is excited for. She immediately lit up:
“I’m excited to be on the downside of the COVID-19 response and seeing things begin to find a new normal. The opportunity it presents is to consider how we were doing things before, how quickly we had to change, the reality that we CAN change, and now rather than changing back, we can change forward into a better version of ourselves.”
For those of you who perhaps didn’t see her on your favorite media outlet, Judy was the Public Information Officer in front of the camera throughout the COVID-19 response. As of the time of this writing (5/20/2021), she has submitted 66 press releases and completed 311 interviews (via television, radio, and print), including requests from national media outlets. These topics ranged from, “My kids need to be in school” to “My business is closed. Now what?” to “Why can’t I have a funeral?” and everything in between.
“There were hard conversations during this response when big decisions were made that impacted a lot of people and not in the most positive ways. Helping people make decisions without knowing all of the information about what was ultimately safe was really hard.”
She then quoted Maya Angelo, as she often does:
“When we knew better, we did better.”
We talked about some fun stuff and some hard stuff when I challenged her to think back on some of her most memorable moments. She shared:
“One thing I haven’t thought of in a long time — in Fall of 1999 — when everyone was in a panic about what was going to happen on New Year’s Eve at midnight, changing to 2000. People were building survival kits. Worries about the power going out. The world shutting down. Then, nothing happened!
9/11 — just how traumatic that was for everyone — how hard it was to focus and work.
Potlucks at the Health Department.
When we all made a quilt for Julie Willems Van Dijk, as a department, when she left. [Van Dijk served as Health Officer for a number of years before departing in 2009 and later becoming the Deputy Secretary for the WI Department of Health Services in 2019.]”
I asked how she has been so passionate about public health for this many years. She answered easily:
“There’s always something new and fun to do. There are new things and opportunities to make places the best that they can be, and who doesn’t want to be a part of that? We are always learning.”
We closed out by discussing whether there was anything else she wanted readers to know. She carefully replied:
“I want people to know that the COVID-19 response isn’t why I’m leaving. It might have made it a bit easier and made me a bit more tired, but this was my plan all along. This career has been extremely fulfilling, and I’ve loved it. And I will miss it. COVID just came first…
With that being said, I couldn’t leave a career and group of people I love when we were working in absolute chaos. It would be like a captain jumping off a ship in a storm.”
We are all so thankful Judy stayed for the chaos, too.
When asked about her retirement plans, she shared:
“I’m looking forward to doing the things I’m most passionate about. It feels like a new beginning. There’s an opportunity to do some things I’ve been wanting to do for my family and for myself.”
We concluded by discussing a wish for the future. Judy shared:
“This is a great place to live, work, visit, and do business. We are all individuals who do all of those things as whole humans. I think it’s great when those things connect. With working from home we’ve seen peoples’ lives, their homes, their pets, their kids. There’s something special about that. I hope that continues. My other wish for the community is to be more inclusive so everyone feels welcome here.”
As Judy approaches her last day on June 1, we wish her well in her future endeavors and thank her for her 29 years of dedicated service to public health and Marathon County.
And we aren’t the only ones…
On behalf of the State of Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers, Senator Jerry Petrowski, and Representative Patrick Snyder issued Judy a legislative citation recognizing her 29-year career in public service.
We all congratulate Judy on this well-deserved distinction and on her retirement.
Public Health Educator | Marathon County Health Department
Jenna Flynn is a Public Health Educator with the Marathon County Health Department. Jenna holds a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Public Health. She grew up in Northern Wisconsin and is proud to serve the central region. In her free time, Jenna enjoys reading, spending time with her family, cooking, and participating in the many outdoor activities that Wisconsin has to offer. Email Jenna Flynn.
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