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She Picks Up the Torch

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Icon
Mar 3rd, 2021
0 Comments
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LAURA W CLARK    /    KELLY MOORE CLARK

JULIA BARNHILL LETLOW defines perseverance and resilience—traits that will serve her well as she seeks to fill the congressional seat left vacant by her late husband, Luke Letlow. The 41-year-old congressman-elect passed away from COVID-19 just two months ago, only days before he was to be sworn into office. Julia finds purpose in pain after losing her soulmate.

Julia Barnhill Letlow at her home in Start with son Jeremiah and daughter Jacqueline.

When Julia Barnhill Letlow ran track, her goal wasn’t to jump over the hurdles, it was to glide through them. The Louisiana heat enveloped her, her brown curls escaped her ponytail, and she felt free. “It was exhilarating to run around the track; there was a fierceness about it. When you’re competing and conditioning in track and field, you are so focused,” Julia said.

  Her father, Terry, admires his daughter’s tenacity, which has been prevalent since her youth.

  “She was three and a half years old when she rode a bike without training wheels. I can still see that little girl wobble a bit, and then take off,” he said. “In high school, she was favored to win the state championship in hurdles, but she tripped on the first hurdle and went down. It didn’t stop her. She had enough courage to attempt the long jump, even though she wasn’t favored to win it. But she did it, and she won.”

  At 17 years old, Julia, who was asked to join the high school team as a seventh-grader, was named Louisiana’s 1998 state champion in the long jump—leaping 18 feet—and her record at her alma mater, Ouachita Christian School (OCS) remains unbroken. It wouldn’t be the last time Julia chased a challenge.

  Determination has colored her personality since she was a baby, said her mother, Kathi. “When I would get her from her crib, she would greet me with a big smile and giggle. She was such a happy child from the very beginning. She talked early, and she was inquisitive.” she said. “She was also very determined. She was my little one who would look at me and say, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ with a slight smile on her face, and then turn around and do exactly what she wanted.”

  While Julia was sandwiched between two siblings—younger brother Jeremy and older sister April—she never disappeared as the middle child. She idolized her older sister and coddled her younger brother, calling him “her baby” even though she was only three years old when he was born, and she often tried to take him from her seven-year-old sister. Kathi said, “I turned around when Jeremy was three or four weeks old, and Julia had grabbed him out of the carrier and was carrying him—upside down. If April was holding him, Julia was right there, insisting it was her turn. I can still hear her saying, ‘Let me have that baby.’”

  When Julia was in first grade, she decided to color construction paper pieces and sell them door-to-door as bookmarks. Kathi laughs affectionately at those moments and describes Julia as “determination mixed with finesse.”

  Except for a short stint in Shreveport, Julia grew up in Monroe where her home overlooked the bayou. Julia remembers her family as charmed; they weren’t perfect, but they genuinely loved spending time with each other.

  April can’t remember a time during their childhood when they weren’t together. “I have these vivid memories of listening to the album ‘Bullfrogs and Butterflies’ singing, and making Jeremy play dress-up. We performed these full-out concerts for my parents. We would make up these stories at night while trying to go to bed. We had our own imaginative playground where we could do all these amazing things. Julia would be in my bed, and Jeremy would be on the floor. And yes, we each had our own rooms,” April said with a smile.

  Julia met her childhood best friend, Julie Ramsey, in elementary school. Julie said Julia was never afraid to voice her ideas regarding any hurdle. When the girls were 11 years old, they disagreed with some of their Bible teacher’s perspectives. Julie, who describes herself as more introverted, found herself meeting with the teacher and Julia, a meeting which Julia had initiated.

  “I remember Julia saying to me, ‘Julie, this is not ok. We need to meet with him so that he can hear our beliefs. I don’t want to return to class until we resolve this issue.’ She was fired up, so she spoke up about it. And as a result, we effectively communicated our feelings, and our teacher listened to us,” Julie said. “She was my person navigating those junior high and high school years. She was very loyal, full of integrity, and a natural leader. She had this confidence about her. And whenever we went through hard times, we always encouraged each other.”

      Julia attributes much of her capacity for empathy to her brother Jeremy. When she was 16 years old, Julia broke up with her boyfriend and said a tearful goodbye to him at her parents’ front door. After he left, she turned around and found Jeremy, 13, also crying. “I remember him saying, ‘I’m just so sad for you.’ He was heartbroken for me. I wanted to be more like that. I wanted to have that kind of empathy. He took on other people’s pain.”

  In March of 2002, Julia, a week from 21 years old and a communications major at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, faced a hurdle that would change how she viewed life and processed pain. Jeremy, then 17, died in a car accident. Julia’s parents were out of town, preparing to board a cruise ship.

  While in the hospital, Julia realized she would be the one to tell her parents about Jeremy. As she would later describe in her doctoral dissertation, she walked to the front desk on wobbly knees, where the phone awaited her. She picked up the receiver while her entire body shook. Her father answered the phone, and after Julia told him what happened, her dad was quiet and then said, “Jeremy is in heaven now, and we had 17 beautiful years with him. For that, we can be grateful.” Years later, reflecting on his calm response, she is grateful for the kind of father he was in that moment. 

  Julia said, “When Jeremy died, it devastated our family. It didn’t seem real. I was at an age when I was supposed to start blossoming, and I caved inward. I became fiercely protective of my parents because I watched them experience unbelievable pain.”

“I feel Luke encouraging me, and I feel his support,” Julia said. “I’m also heartbroken. We were soulmates; we finished each other’s sentences, and he was the person I called and talked to about everything. We were each other’s person. I think you get one person on this earth, and he was mine,” she said.

  Her friend Julie, who had two sisters, said Jeremy was the closest she had to a brother, a brother she described as “loveable and full of joy.” Julie remembered that her best friend was supposed to study abroad in London that following summer, and Julia’s family convinced her to go. “I remember thinking, even in her grief, she is putting one foot in front of the other. I admired that so much,” Julie said.

  After earning her undergraduate degree from ULM, Julia attended graduate school at ULM, where her major professors encouraged her to research sibling loss. 

  “After Jeremy passed away, my natural inclination was to dig into literature. When I discovered a deficit on the topic of sibling loss, I started researching it. I found the process to be cathartic,” she said. “I discovered that people acclimate to loss much better when they can find meaning. Things such as writing, speaking about one’s experience, and helping others are all examples of that. My parents still reach out to people who have lost a child.”

  Julia graduated with an M.A. in speech communication from ULM in 2005 and later earned her Ph.D. in communication from the University of South Florida in 2011; both degrees focused on family loss. Her doctoral dissertation has been downloaded almost 5,000 times since its publication.

  She began working at ULM in 2007 as an instructor and special projects coordinator for ULM’s Academic Affairs Office. It was during that time she began dating Luke Letlow. The two knew of each other at OCS but never dated as teenagers.

  “Someone once described Luke Letlow as ‘the most sought-after bachelor working in Baton Rouge,’” Julia said with a smile. “When I tell you I was smitten, I fell hard. He was the most non-judgmental person I had ever met. No one had ever treated me with such respect and devotion.”

  The two dated for a year, and when Julia thought Luke was going to propose, she met another hurdle: he ended their relationship. “We were young, and I think he got scared. I was devastated. But I wasn’t going to let it stop me from moving forward.”

  Julia moved to New Orleans, where she worked as the Director of Education, Director of Resident Patient Safety and Quality Improvement, and Clinical Instructor of Anesthesiology at Tulane University School of Medicine. She also discovered a sisterhood, all of whom became her lifelong friends.

  While she continued to make a life in New Orleans, Luke never left her mind. “My sister and I were sitting on a dock when I told her, ‘I’m never going to marry someone unless I feel the same way I feel about Luke.”

  Three years passed, and when Luke reached out to Julia and asked her to consider dating him again, Julia’s decision was instant. “When he came back into my life, it wasn’t just a feeling; it was a knowing.”

  After marrying in 2013, which Julia says is the “best decision she ever made,” the two moved to Denver, where they grew even closer as a couple. They had profound talks about their future and their shared dreams. “By that point, there wasn’t one thing we didn’t know about each other,” Julia said.

  They returned to Monroe in 2014. Julia worked as the Communications Director for Dr. Ralph Abraham’s congressional campaign, and Luke worked as Dr. Abraham’s campaign manager. After Dr. Abraham became Louisiana’s 5th District Congressman, Luke became his Chief of Staff, and Julia eventually turned her attention to ULM.

  Lisa Miller, ULM’s Chief Communication Officer, interviewed and ultimately hired Julia for ULM’s Director of Marketing and Communications position in 2015. She remembers how hard Julia worked—evening and weekends—and how she shined when faced with hurdles. “Julia knew what she didn’t know, and it didn’t scare her. She would dive into extensive research.”

  Lisa and Julia worked together for six years on major university initiatives, including the rebranding of the university, which had undergone several name changes and one mascot change since its inception. With the rest of their team, they created a new logo and an accompanying marketing narrative for the rebranding—on a zero-dollar budget.

  “We were discouraged many times, but we learned from the feedback, and we adjusted,” Lisa said. “Julia was the tenacious one who kept us moving forward. She constantly reminded us how important it was to honor the past so we could bridge the gap between ULM and NLU (the University’s former name). It was a yearlong project, and she championed it. She is a true example of grit and grace.” 

  Some of Lisa’s favorite memories of working with Julia remain vivid images in her mind. 

  “When we were sitting in an important meeting, Julia’s leg was in constant motion. I would tap her, signaling for her to quit. But the leg swinging wasn’t from anxiety; she was amped up. Her motor was constantly going,” Lisa said. “Some days, she would walk into our office after hours, wearing hunter boots with mud splotches. She and Luke were building a house in Start, and she would think of something related to work and return to the office.”

  While Lisa is the older of the two, she credits Julia for teaching her stronger communication styles, such as avoiding apologetic talk, advocating for herself professionally, and accepting recognition for her accomplishments. 

  Lisa was not the only one to learn from Julia. Srdjan Marjanovic, the team’s creative director, moved to the United States in 2005 and was still acclimating to the American, Louisianian, and academic cultures when he began working for Julia at ULM.  

“Her capacity for understanding the organization and adapting to a particular situation really helped me overcome the cultural shock,” Srdjan said. “I was impulsive, and she taught me to slow down and react to patterns from a different perspective. She overcomes challenges with patience and empathy; she tries to understand others’ perspectives. Those are her strengths, and they are remarkable.”

  She and Luke were also facing a private hurdle during that time: infertility. So, Julia researched options and found a solution. The couple welcomed Jeremiah, who was named in honor of her brother Jeremy, in September of 2017. 

TRUE DEVOTION

“When I tell you I was smitten, I fell hard. He was the most non-judgmental person I had ever met. No one had ever treated me with such respect and devotion.”

  “I will never forget what Dr. Amber Shemwell said to me moments before my c-section. She said, ‘For the rest of your life, every single day, you’re going to wrestle something, and it’s called ‘mom guilt.’ Make peace with the fact that you’re not perfect and that you will make mistakes.’ Her words profoundly impacted me, and she was absolutely correct. As a working mother, I’ve realized that giving love and attention and being present helps alleviate the guilt. Parenthood is not perfect as it’s frequently portrayed on social media.”

  Julia soon faced a very common hurdle—one that approximately 70-80 percent of mothers experience in some form—after Jeremiah’s birth. When she experienced postpartum anxiety, Julia once again turned to research. She read about it and sought guidance from professionals and friends. “There’s no reason for suffering. And because it’s stigmatized, we often don’t talk about it,” Julia said. “The minute I told my husband I was struggling, he encouraged me to reach out.”

  One of the friends Julia turned to was her college best friend and Kappa Delta sorority sister Amy Robinson. Amy talked to Julia about mindfulness and how to be present in the moment. 

  “It has changed my life and helped me navigate my feelings. You get out of your head. Our conversation over three years ago led me to contemplative prayer, which I still practice for 10 minutes each day,” Julia said. “I believe Christ lives within me and is so intimately acquainted with me. I use that time to breathe and express my gratitude for my family and friendships. Practicing that gratitude takes away the fear of losing them.”

When Julia and Luke welcomed Jacqueline in January of 2020, Julia had the tools to face potential postpartum issues with confidence. In the summer of 2020, Julia, who had been promoted to Executive Assistant to the President in 2019, considered another hurdle: the ULM presidency. Luke immediately encouraged her to pursue it. With some hesitation, she asked two of her close girlfriends what they thought about the idea. Julia wasn’t prepared for their response.

  “I will never forget that day; I thought I was going to have to talk them into it, and instead, they immediately convinced me I had to do it,” she said. “And when I talked to my girlfriends in New Orleans and expressed my concern that not everyone would think it’s a good idea, they replied with, ‘Why do you think you need everyone’s approval to qualify you for a job?’ That’s why you need a support system that will remind you of your gifts and the fact that if you don’t get it, you will be stronger for trying. That entire process refined and prepared me for what was to come.”

  Julia’s daughter cemented her decision to apply for the presidency. “I was rocking Jacqueline one night, and I thought, what would I tell her to do if she were in my position? I would tell her she could do anything when she invested her heart and mind into it. I wouldn’t want fear to hold her back. I would want her to know she was just as qualified as the person next to her.”

  While Julia was named a semi-finalist for the position, she ultimately didn’t get it. The day after her final interview, her husband posted his thoughts on Facebook: “I watched with pride and awe as my wife interviewed as a semi-finalist for the ULM Presidential Search. She let her passion to better this region and her bold vision for ULM guide her as she interviewed with grace and strength. Anyone who truly knows my wife knows that her determination is a force to be reckoned with, her vision is inspiring, and her passion is contagious,” he wrote. “Julia, I am so proud of you for stepping forward, and I know there are many others who feel the same way. While this may not have been your time, you are destined for greatness. And it will be the highest honor of my life to be by your side through it all.”

Julia said Luke ran for that presidency along with her; they were partners. She returned the favor, and accompanied by their two small children, helped him during his campaign to represent Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District. On Dec. 29, 2020, days before Luke, 41, was to be sworn in as Congressman, he passed away from complications caused by COVID-19. 

  Kathi was sitting in her daughter’s living room—the home Luke and Julia had built in Start—when Julia heard from Luke’s doctor. “My daughter was quiet and then said, ‘I want to thank you for all that you did to save Luke. I will be ok, and I know the Lord will get me through this.’ She was comforting the doctor.”

  Today, Julia feels Luke’s presence—and his absence. “I feel him encouraging me, and I feel his support,” she said. “I’m also heartbroken. We were soulmates; we finished each other’s sentences, and he was the person I called and talked to about everything. We were each other’s person. I think you get one person on this earth, and he was mine,” she said. “I also know that emotions are waves, and they come crashing, but they also leave. That’s why I think so clearly right now. I know that my thoughts don’t define me. I know I will find joy again.”

  During Luke’s campaign stops, Jeremiah, three years old, often walked alongside his daddy, holding his hand, wearing little brown cowboy boots similar to Luke’s. Julia knows Jeremiah is grieving, too.

She said, “I think it’s important for my children to see me grieve because they need to know it’s okay to cry. Whenever I’m upset, Jeremiah brings me his little blanket with the red stars. He tells me, ‘Mama, I am praying for you, Grandma, and Papa. And, I’m praying for my daddy in the clouds.’”

  Throughout his accomplished political career, Luke showed Julia what it meant to be the people’s servant. Julia soon shared Luke’s vision for Louisiana.

  “At the height of the pandemic, a woman’s house had burned down, and he immediately wanted her to move in with us. That’s the kind of person he was. He loved to fix problems for people. He taught me that if you help one person, and then the next, that evolves into huge progress for the community, the district, and the state,” she said. 

  Not long after he passed away, community members asked Julia to consider running for the seat Luke had won.

  When Julia lost her little brother, she learned to find purpose in pain. Continuing Luke’s legacy and contributing to her home state shaped her decision to run. “I believe part of the reason I’m still on this earth is to continue Luke’s work, and I intend to see it through. I will serve others as he would have. I’m devastated he can’t live out his dream, and yet I’m hopeful—and so honored—to continue what we both envisioned for Louisiana.”

  Imagining possibilities is one of Julia’s biggest talents, said Julia’s college friend, Amy. 

  “What drew me to Julia in college was that she was such a good listener and an encourager. She sees your worthiness when you don’t. She was my mirror in college and still is today. When you’re around her, you feel like you can do anything. She reminds you of your potential,” Amy said. “She does the same thing on a professional level, and because of that, she rises to the top as an influencer. She is the person who sees the untapped potential and the worthiness in a person, an organization, and a state. And she always uses her voice to fight for that potential. I can think of no better person to run for Congress. She was made for this.”

Year after year, Julia was inspired while serving on the Board of Directors for ULM’s Women’s Symposium, an annual event that empowers women through leadership development. “I remember how the women in our community clamored to attend that event. And when seeking panelists, we discovered local women who accomplished hard things and blazed the trail for women like me,” Julia said. “When Luke was running, I noticed a deficit in female voices. I remember thinking that if 55 percent of our population is female, we need more representation in all levels of government.”

  Julia wants to be one of those female voices, and notably, Louisiana’s first Republican woman to be elected to Congress. “I want my children to look back on this difficult time and remember that we chose hope. I want them to know that grief and hope for the future can co-exist. Both can be true. You’re grieving, and you’re moving forward in faith. I’m walking through two different things—hope and devastation—and I’m fueled by both. I’m ready to run.”