To Professor Dr. Julia Saunders

Dean Young, Columnist

“She popped up out of the bushes, brushed the twigs and leaves off and said, ‘It’s a catbird!’” 

I found myself smiling as chemistry professor Dr. Rita Majerle recounted stories to me about her colleague, Dr. Julia Saunders. Friday marked the memorial for the late Hamline professor, and after the service I was able to hear just a few things that made Julia’s time at Hamline so memorable.

Professor Dr. Julia Saunders, who also attended Hamline as an undergrad, has been immortalized on Alumni Way. She was known for her encouraging nature and positive attitude inside and outside of the classroom. A memorial was held for Julia over the weekend outside of Anderson for faculty, staff and students to attend and honor her life.

Julia (she always insisted we call her by her first name) was a chemistry professor, and one of the first faculty members I met at Hamline. Only a few months before I enrolled in her class she had received the diagnosis of stage four cancer – though I would have never guessed her battle simply by interacting with her. Never one for self pity, Julia was continually affable, open and upbeat. She carried a bright ambition and positive disposition everywhere with her; that, and her characteristic yardstick (as my peers will recall) that she always used during her lectures.

Any of my fellow students who knew Julia would be quick to speak of the impact she had in their livesas a teacher with a gift of communication, and a mentor with a heart for encouragement. I recall the first day of class when she told us that we only needed two things to succeed in her class: effort and attitude. As the semester progressed, it became apparent she held herself to the same standard.

As with her students, her colleagues felt a deep appreciation for her work. “To me, she exemplified what a teacher should be. She knew how to take a subject and explain it in a conversational tone; she knew how to bring her students to the next level,” Dr. Majerle said. 

Chemistry professor Dr. Urvashi Gangal describes her similarly.  

“An excellent professor and person. Very brave and courageous,” Dr. Gangal said.

It was hard for me to recognize at the time just how courageous Julia was, due in large part to her disdain for pity; she never wished others to treat her differently during her battle with cancer. Once or twice during office hours, I brought up her health to ask her how she was doing: she thanked me for the concern, but was far more concerned with how she could help me, be it drawing Lewis structures or balancing chemical equations.

Before Dr. Saunders served as a Hamline professor, she was a Hamline undergraduate student, taking classes and doing research with faculty such as Dr. Majerle and Dr. Matachek. 

“Julia was the same as a student as she was a teacher: outgoing, talkative, friendly,” Dr. Majerle recalls. Beyond being a chemistry major, she was a dedicated softball athlete and later served as the faculty liaison for the Hamline team.

As Dr. Majerle was telling me stories about Julia, she mentioned a time she found Julia deep in the bushes outside Robbins Science Center. Curious to know what she was after, she heard Julia exclaim, “It sounds like there’s a cat in there!” At this point I interrupted Dr. Majerle to ask what point in Julia’s undergraduate studies this occurred. 

“Nothis was when she was a faculty member, ” she explained with a smile. 

Julia’s love of nature carried well into her faculty years, and led her to adventures such as digging through the bushes of Robbins to find the source of an animal’s call. Moments later, Julia sprung up from the bushes, covered in twigs and leaves, happily announcing she found a catbird (known for its distinctive “meow”).

Months after I was out of Julia’s course (and shortly before her passing), I found an email in my inbox from Julia. While scrolling through her social media feed Julia found an article about music and the brain; remembering my interest in the topic, she took a screenshot and forwarded it to me, along with wishes for success in the upcoming semester. This thoughtfulness was but one of the many demonstrations of her care for students for which she was so well known. She treated us like her family.

 The Saunders family found a highlight even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: Julia was able to spend much time together with her husband (also a Hamline alum) and her two young daughters in the months before her passing. All throughout her battle, Dr. Saunders continued to be active, engaged and positive-minded. Though she is no longer with us, I look forward to listening for the catbirds calling from the bushes outside Robbins, and thinking of Julia’s appreciation for these small moments. I know that students and faculty members alike will continue to miss her greatly and hold gratitude for her enduring impact.