The First Gentleman: Kirk Elifson

Elifson and Sterk pose for a photo on a hiking trip the couple took a few years ago. / Courtesy of Kirk Elifson
Elifson and Sterk pose for a photo on a hiking trip the couple took a few years ago. / Courtesy of Kirk Elifson

In a room of 30 AIDS experts, a woman from a coal mining town in the Netherlands met a man from a small Midwestern town at the unexpectedly romantic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) more than 25 years ago. Those two researchers, now University President Claire E. Sterk and Rollins School of Public Health research professor Kirk Elifson, became “great pals,” and endeavor to advance the University’s fundraising activities and address concerns from Emory community members.

Although Elifson and Sterk were initially uneasy about the time commitment required for the Emory presidency, Elifson said that he realized Sterk was ready for the position when he was preparing her for interviews.

“I was shocked at how … she was so articulate, so quick-thinking, so knowledgeable, that I saw her in a way that I didn’t even know her — and we’ve been married for 28 years,” Elifson said. “That told me that this was the right thing to do.”

Teamwork is a familiar concept to the couple: as research partners, they have published more than 100 scholarly articles together. Recently, the two traveled to major cities, such as Miami and Los Angeles, to meet with Emory alumni and donors. Working with his wife comes “with great ease,” Elifson said, emphasizing that the two never compete with each other, and always maintain an open mind and ear when they disagree.

Scattered across Elifson’s desk are pages of his partner’s speeches. He often provides feedback, helps her prepare for meetings and brainstorms how to advance Emory with her in the evenings.

“I understand her voice,” Elifson said. “She knows that I have her best interests at heart.”

Having her best interests at heart entails understanding her views and why she holds them. Amidst a contentious political climate, Elifson noted that Sterk can relate to the trauma that international students feel from President Donald J. Trump’s travel ban executive order, because Sterk is an immigrant herself.

“She still gets nervous going across the border and coming in through immigration,” Elifson said. “She’s a citizen … but it still reminds her of one time she was detained in Mexico. She was working for the federal government and she didn’t have a green card at the time and they wouldn’t let her come back in and held her there for a number of hours.”

Since Sterk assumed the University presidency last semester, Elifson has been thrust onto the public stage, receiving more attention than ever before. In supporting his wife, the first gentleman of Emory University said he sticks to what he knows.

Elifson wears myriad hats: professor, statistician, sociologist, mentor, administrator, veteran and gardener, to name but a few. His daily routine has amassed “more and more work,” including helping Emory bring more military veterans to campus, participating in Carter Center research, mentoring first-generation and low-income students and getting to know the pulse of the University. As the former chair of the sociology department at Georgia State University, his leadership skills aided him in getting to know new Emory faculty members and students, and discussing the direction in which they would like to see Emory head.

Helping first-generation students succeed in higher education hits close to home for both Elifson and Sterk, who come from households where either one or both of their parents did not go to college.

Outside of Emory, Elifson also serves on the board of Hope Atlanta, a nonprofit that provides transportation, shelter and linkage to health care to homeless people. Elifson’s drive to give back also combines with his love for horticulture. As former president of the Olmsted Linear Park Alliance, which helps preserve the historic Atlanta park, Elifson’s eyes light up when he talks plans to spruce up his new home, Lullwater Park, with new flora.

“We … try to bring some sunshine into the world and help people get a chance who haven’t had a chance,” Elifson said. “We’ve had people reach out to us when we were younger and brought us forward, and now we try to do that.”

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