A sweet and loving child of God returned to her heavenly father in the still and quiet of a bitterly-cold January morning earlier this week. Julie Buchanan, better known to most of her McDowell Tech family as Julie Padgett, ended her battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, on Wednesday, just a little more than 21 months after she was officially diagnosed with the disease. ALS is a progressively debilitating neurodegenerative disease that can severely affect the brain and spinal cord over time.
Her passing was bittersweet. She had suffered greatly, losing her ability to walk and talk, among other things. But she was a fighter with a genuine love of life, and used her computer and eye movements to help her communicate. She had always been witty and eloquent, with an occasional dose of sarcasm thrown in for good measure, and right up until the end, she never lost her sense of humor or focus on others.
Julie first became part of the McDowell Tech family as a Huskins Bill student, taking McDowell Tech classes while she was still in high school. Shortly after graduating from college at Western Carolina University, she returned McDowell Tech as a liaison between the newly-created McDowell Early College and McDowell High School. She also taught a series of student success classes to build foundational skills and foster growth and future success among new college students.
Later, Julie transitioned to the Student Services Office at McDowell Tech, where she was Student Government Association (SGA) Advisor and Director of Enrollment Management. Her energy and enthusiasm, her heart for students and her desire to help them succeed made her a perfect fit for these roles. She and Kim Ledbetter, another McDowell Tech employee who passed away unexpectedly a couple of years ago, worked tirelessly to keep the college’s food pantry stocked so that any student who needed food for themselves or their family had access to it and that they were treated with dignity and respect. She worked with SGA officers to plan and execute festivals and campus events that were creative and fostered interaction between students, faculty and staff.
No matter what was going on in her life, Julie always came to work with a smile on her face. As people passed her office, she would often look up from her desk and say, “Hey, Girl, Hey!”—her go-to greeting for friends and co-workers. Her energy and positivity were infectious at times. Friends who visited her during the last few months of her life were amazed that she never lost that positive outlook on life. “She was still the same old Julie,” said one.
In meetings with colleagues and administrators, she was known as the idea person; she would whip out her notebook and rattle off ideas for campus events, increasing student enrollment, improved marketing strategies, and so many other things. Whatever she did, she gave it her all and encouraged others to do the same. She recognized that McDowell Tech was full of talented, passionate people, and she encouraged them to use their talents and skills to make positive things happen. In particular, when she and former MTCC President Dr. John Gossett got together, they were a force to be reckoned with. To this day, he still refers to her as “Work Julie,” to distinguish her from his wife, who is also named Julie.
Outside the office, Julie was a loving mother to her daughter Amelia, now a tenth grader at McDowell High School. During ball season, she was a sports mom, and at other times, she and Amelia enjoyed going places and doing things together, including crafting and such. She often hiked, went places or traveled with friends like Erin and Haley McEntire or hung out with work buddies like Breanna Wilson, Jill Hensley, Kelly McFarland and Valerie Dobson. Two or three years ago, she met her soulmate, Michael Buchanan, who would become her husband and faithful companion. He stood by her throughout her illness, making sure she knew that she was loved and that she had everything she needed or wanted.
Prior to her diagnosis with ALS, Julie had endured a battle with breast cancer and was out of work several weeks following surgery for that condition. However, despite enduring back-to-back serious and life-threatening illnesses and the recent passing of her father, Sam Buckner, Julie never lost her faith. She was a long-time member of Liberty Free Will Baptist Church, and during her struggle with ALS, she continued to quote scripture passages—like Matthew 22:37, for example—“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
And she did just that. People of lesser faith might have been tempted to do as Job’s wife had suggested and “…curse God and die.” But paraphrasing Job 2:10, “In all this, Julie did not sin with her lips.”
Back in 1960, Ferlin Husky popularized a chart-topping song, “Wings of a Dove.” In it, he sang about God’s love for us: “When troubles surround us, When evils come, The body grows weak, The spirit grows numb. When these things beset us, He doesn’t forget us. He sends down his love, On the wings of a dove.”
In her living and in her suffering, Julie knew the sweet presence of God in her life, and on Wednesday, that dove swooped down and carried her spirit into the loving arms of her savior. While she will be missed greatly by her mother, daughter, husband and friends, those of us who know that same savior will see her again one day.
Until then, follow Julie’s lead and spread love and joy whenever and wherever you can, and when you feel overwhelmed, listen for the faint rustle of a dove’s wings coming to renew your spirit.