Written by Jenna Flynn
Throughout my discussion with Joan, there was an emerging theme that partnerships and collaboration have been at the forefront of her work, the reason she’s remained passionate, and why she chose Marathon County. Joan has been a fierce leader in public health who has been working in service to its mission for thirty-six years. After more than 15 years of service to Marathon County, we will say farewell to Joan later this month as she pursues new adventures.
Joan began her public health career in Marathon County while she was living here and working for the state as a regional public health nurse consultant and serving as a contract administrator for the Division of Public Health. Through this work, she interfaced with health department staff and various other partners. She noticed right away that Marathon County valued partnerships, an important factor for her when pursuing a career change. In addition, she was ready to transition to a role where she could return to working at the local level to make a difference. Joan joined the Marathon County Health Department as the Director of Family Health and Communicable Disease in 2006, later becoming the Health Officer – a role in which she’s served for the last twelve years.
We started off by discussing her favorite parts about working for the County and she reflected on two things:
“Working alongside community partners, developing partnerships, and seeing initiatives owned through collaboration. As a Health Department, we are charged with the health of over 135,000 residents and the communities they live in. With a staff of forty, we cannot do what we do without partnerships.
Working for an organization which has a strong organizational culture that is values-driven and performance-oriented, enjoying collaboration among departments to achieve our common mission to be the healthiest, safest, and most prosperous county in Wisconsin.”
I moved on to learning about some of the most meaningful work Joan has completed while working for Marathon County, she reflected:
1. “Contributing to conversations that have led to adopting the County’s overarching mission to be the healthiest, safest, and most prosperous county in the state. Over the last 20 years we’ve been talking about what is health – it’s where you live, work, & play. Seeing the linkage between health, safety, and economy is significant in advancing our mission.
2. Working on the 2016 Marathon County Comprehensive Plan and resulting 2018-2022 Marathon County Strategic Plan, setting a course that will shape our future.
3. As a community, we have moved upstream in preventing chronic diseases, such as efforts around increasing awareness of how to drink safely, expanding local food options, increasing access for biking and walking, and normalizing the benefits in using mental health services. In the history of public health, it was relatively recent that we began talking about one’s mental well-being having ties to their physical well-being.
4. Evolution of the LIFE Report and the ability to have it available through Marathon County Pulse. Our community partnership with United Way of Marathon County has provided new opportunities, creating a better product. The data is strong, the report is readily accessible, and it’s updated annually.”
Throughout my involvement with the Wisconsin Public Health Association (WPHA) I’ve met many great leaders, all speaking highly of Joan Theurer. It has made me proud to work for Marathon County’s Health Department and thankful that we had a strong public health leader in the Health Officer role during the COVID-19 pandemic response. Joan has shown such great public health leadership that in 2018 she was elected as Health Officer of the Year by the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards (WALHDAB). While in the trenches of the COVID-19 pandemic response, she was recognized and honored with the Carol Graham Lifetime Achievement Award by WPHA in 2021. This award recognizes Joan’s special career-spanning contributions through her leadership, advocacy, and service to public health in Wisconsin.
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges for public health over the past year and a half. When asked if she was leaving because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Joan responded:
“Not really, not because of COVID. The pandemic took some years of my life and I want to take them back. I’m not really retiring early. The timing is right. The department is in a transition. With many new colleagues coming on board, the department is bright with opportunity. Last time this happened was in 2006. It’s healthy to have new people come in with new ideas. I feel like I will miss out a bit. It has been exciting going through interviews and seeing really great candidates, but I feel it’s time.”
Staying on the topic of COVID-19, I asked how Joan felt about having the pandemic response as the “cake topper” to her public health career:
“Well I stepped into this role in 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic. It’s fitting and ironic to end my career with the COVID-19 pandemic. I do know there has been lost synergy around programs, services, and community initiatives. It’s been put on pause for a while. In some ways this is a great way to end a career – even at the end I’m still growing skills and learning new things.”
As we talked about what the future holds, I had to ask whether we are calling her departure a retirement or something else. She answered playfully:
“I’m calling it something else. I feel it is more like a celebration – a celebration of my time as Health Officer and the last twelve years of what we’ve been able to do.”
When I asked Joan whether she’d realized her departure was quickly approaching, she reflected:
“It only set in yesterday (7/14). I was thinking about orientation, vacancies, cleaning files, and the budget process. There is a month and a half left. I am feeling the time pressures and want to leave things in a good place.”
I inquired about what she will miss most:
“I’ll miss creating. Local health departments are deemed to be health strategists in the county, and it’s been great to work with teams and partners to take an idea and make it a reality. If I was born in a different time and place, I would have been an architect. The work has been rewarding, because in a way I’ve been able to build and create.
I’ll miss the people. My decision to come here and work for Marathon County was because I saw people working together and the value of partnerships. People are always willing to step in, further goals, work together, and get involved.”
I closed with asking Joan what she’s excited for in her next chapter:
“Seeing where the paths will take me, what opportunities will be presented, and what doors will open up. I don’t have a huge plan; I have never lived a life with lots of plans. There will now be space for those opportunities. I look forward to seeing where the health department and county will go.
Some of the things I love to do have been put on hold: paddling, hiking, cross-country skiing, reading non-COVID things, listening to non-COVID things, baking, gardening, being adventurous, and cooking.
This has been a great place to work and live when I reflect on my career. In public health we are about the collective good. Public health has always been about carrying out the will of the people and I’m proud to have been part of that.”
We wish Joan well on her future endeavors and thank her for her 15 years of dedication to Marathon County and 36 years in service to public health. Best wishes, Joan!
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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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