Retired health department director honored with wall of fame

Environmental health specialist Andrew Stull hands a picture of his children to Kay Kent, former director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, as the two catch up during a visit earlier this month. Kent was honored by the health department for her 33 years of service with a wall of public health award named after her.

Kay Kent saw a lot of changes during her 33 years as director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.

And she will continue to oversee the goings-on at the health department for the foreseeable future, though not in a literal sense. On Tuesday, to coincide with National Public Health Week, the health department unveiled the Kay Kent Excellence in Public Health Service Award wall, with Kent’s picture and bio front and center. The health department gives the award annually to an employee who, following Kent’s example, goes above and beyond the call of duty. This year’s winner was Linda Rippetoe, a longtime nutritionist with the department’s Women, Infants and Children program.

The wall isn’t the only thing about the health department that’s different from when Kent started in the early 1970s. At that time, Douglas County had a population of about 60,000, while the department had fewer than 10 employees and provided only a handful of services, including immunizations, septic-system inspections and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

Kent tried to figure out what was needed in the community and added services accordingly. She oversaw the implementation of Project LIVELY, which gives no-cost case management to seniors to keep them living at home. Hers was one of the first health departments in Kansas to adopt the WIC program, which provides formula and food vouchers to new mothers. In addition, she helped start an adolescent pregnancy program, family-based sexual education and HIV testing, and, outside the health department, was one of the founders of Health Care Access, the Lawrence safety-net clinic for the uninsured.

Kent, who retired in 2006, was also the first public health officer in the state of Kansas who wasn’t a physician, a situation that is much more common nowadays.

Even so, Kent said the biggest change to happen during her career was technology. “When I started 41 years ago, people were not even using calculators to do budgets; they were using adding machines,” she said.

The health department’s assistant director, Charlotte Marthaler, said Kent had “high standards” and would always remind the staff that what happened at the Statehouse in Topeka would affect them in Lawrence. Kent also wasn’t afraid to implement new programs. “She was an early adopter,” Marthaler said.

Current health department director Dan Partridge said Tuesday that, through the new award wall, Kent would continue “giving us inspiration for many years to come.”

Still, Kent doesn’t take all the credit for the agency’s success.

“It’s the staff who does the work. The staff is committed to providing good public service,” she said. “More than the programs, I’m proud of our employees and the work they did.”