October 16, 2023 | Erin Bluvas, email@example.com
It has been 25 years since Dianne Ward held a full-time appointment with the University of South Carolina, but the imprint
she made during her time at the Arnold School and the continued collaborations in
the decades since have only grown. Ward’s unexpected passing in July has led to grief
and loss both here and at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health (her academic
home since 1998), but it has also resulted in reflections on the resounding impact
she has made on universities, colleagues, students and the populations she served.
Committed to children’s health
After studying physical education at Coker College for her bachelor’s degree, Ward continued her relationship with the school. In parallel with earning a master’s degree in the field from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she moved up the ranks from instructor to assistant professor to department chair at Coker.
In 1975, she accepted a faculty position at USC while continuing her doctoral studies at Greensboro. Russell Pate was just a year into his tenure at USC and there to welcome Ward to the School of Public Health, which was established that same year and would be accredited in 1977.
“Dianne and I were great friends and colleagues for nearly 50 years,” Pate says. “Over the decades, our careers moved forward in parallel and very connected ways.”
By 1980, Ward’s role had expanded to include directing the Goodbodies Program, a weight management initiative for children and teenagers that used a family-centered approach. She also served as undergraduate and then graduate director for the Department of Physical Education.
In the late 1980s, Pate and Ward worked with four other faculty members to establish the Department of Exercise Science – the first of its kind to be a part of an accredited school of public health. Their overlapping research programs focused on improving the health of children and preventing childhood obesity. Pate’s expertise in physical activity and Ward’s interest in weight management resulted in collaborations that continued until this year.
Ward was so invested in this work that she spent a year as a postdoctoral research fellow with the Children’s Exercise and Nutrition Center at McMaster University in Canada, and then another with the Department of Physiology at the USC School of Medicine Columbia. Back at the Arnold School, she rose to full professor of exercise science, director of public health practice and associate dean for the school.
“I first got to know Dianne as a parent with a child who was being challenged by youthful
obesity, and I reached out to her because I had heard so many good things about the
Goodbodies program,” says Thomas Chandler, who was a faculty member in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences (ENHS)
at the time. “She interviewed and enrolled my 11-year old son, Thomas, and the results
both physically and mentally were simply amazing. Many of the tenets he learned way
back then from Dianne and her team of graduate students are still serving Thomas well
today as he keeps personal health and fitness high on his list of priorities. She
has this legacy with many grown children now.”
Called to lead
In 1997, Ward was asked to step in as interim dean while the school searched for a new leader. That leader would turn out to be Harris Pastides, who would go on to serve as vice president for research and then president of the university.
“As the incoming dean of the school of public health in 1998, I succeeded Dianne,” Pastides says. “She opened her heart and her Rolodex and suggested that the work would be hard, but valuable, and could be done if I remained authentic. She asked me to remember that in the South, a smile was the precursor to a deal and a handshake was as good as a contract. I followed that advice and built my professional reputation and success on that. Dianne was a friend to everyone she met.”
One of her first actions as interim dean was to appoint Chandler as department chair.
“Dianne reached out and asked me to lead ENHS, but I was early in my career and didn’t really want to do administration. She was a convincing and inspiring ‘boss,’ and I ultimately agreed,” says Chandler, who would begin his tenure as dean of the school in 2007. “Dianne was very creative in her work, full of compassion for others, humorous in her leadership style, and she was just great fun to be around. We became and remained fast friends until this tragic ‘too young’ loss.”
It was during her time as interim dean that Ward made another of her lasting impacts on the school. It started when she crossed paths with then-health promotion, education, and behavior doctoral students Lee Pearson and April Winningham (now a senior instructor in the department).
“I had the privilege of meeting Dianne along with April to pitch the idea for what became the Dean’s Student Advisory Council, which we fondly refer to as DSAC,” says Pearson, who has served as the Arnold School’s associate dean for operations and accreditation since 2016. “I remember her being very supportive of us as student leaders, and I have tried to reflect that spirit in my own work as an administrator. It is certainly a significant part of Dianne’s legacy that DSAC still exists 25 years later. She set the stage for a generation of student leaders in the Arnold School.”
With representatives from each of the six departments, DSAC offers a voice to the graduate student body. They work with administrators, including chairs, associate/assistant deans and graduate directors to address student concerns. They also plan volunteer, social and networking opportunities and help recruit top-tier students.
“Being on DSAC and serving as the president is honestly one of my favorite experiences
from my time in graduate school here at USC,” says EXSC doctoral candidate Katherine DeVivo. “Having the students in my department trust me to represent their voices and being
able to advocate for the entire Arnold School is an honor and responsibility I do
not take lightly. As a student, it means a lot to be heard, respected and valued.”
An enduring impact
Ward’s impactful research and successful leadership would lead to her transition to the Gillings School of Global Public Health at her alma mater’s main campus in Chapel Hill. There, she served as associate dean for the school and associate chair for the Department of Nutrition. She held Fellow positions with four different university centers, including the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention where she established the Children’s Healthy Weight Research Group.
“Her group developed a number of tools for assessing physical activity and nutrition policies and practices in child care centers,” Pate says of efforts like the Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Child Care Program, which was included in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Child Care Initiative. “Those tools are now used extensively across the U.S. and the world.”
At UNC, Ward continued working with students and colleagues. Over the years, she taught and mentored hundreds of undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral and junior faculty members – passing on her knowledge and passion to continue the fight against childhood obesity through the next generation.
“Dianne’s impact on my career started well before we knew each other, when I was a graduate student in the USC Department of Exercise Science that she helped found,” says Arnold School alumna (M.S., Ph.D. in EXSC, 2017) Falon Smith. “Fast forward a few years and a couple of degrees later, I was lucky enough to land a position with Dianne’s research group at UNC. Dianne is the type of mentor everyone in a leadership role should strive to be – passionate, dedicated, collaborative, understanding, with just the right amount of toughness. I feel fortunate to have received her mentorship and honored to call her a friend.”
Ward’s contributions have been recognized with numerous honors, such as her invitation to fellowship with The Obesity Society and the American College of Sports Medicine, where she also served on the Board of Trustees. Other awards include the Jeremy Morris Lecture (Bristol University), Bar-Or Award from Excellence in Pediatric Obesity Research (The Obesity Society), Recognition of Service, Children and Family Health (Society for Behavioral Medicine), Montoye Scholar Award (Southeast Chapter American College of Sport Medicine) and the Faculty Innovation + Inspiration Award for Research (Gillings School of Public Health).
She is mourned and remembered by colleagues and students across USC, UNC and countless other collaborators.
“Those of us who were fortunate to be Dianne’s friend know and will never forget just how lucky have been,” Pate says. “We will all miss her dearly.”