Reflecting on the health department's influence

Posted 6/10/18

“For he who has health has hope; and he who has hope has everything.”— Owen ArthurPrime Minister,Barbados (1994-2008)(b. Oct. 17, 1949)———News reports that the Bradley County Health …

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Reflecting on the health department's influence


News reports that the Bradley County Health Department aced a state fraud and compliance audit earlier this year with a rare “A+” took me back decades to a time when two of the agency’s faraway counterparts played a big role in my life.

The first, when I was just a small boy growing up in a rural slice of northern Mississippi in a tiny town that gave new meaning to tiny, came with the Tippah County Health Department.

The second, when I was a transplanted teenager now living an hour’s drive northwest in another little town just outside of Memphis, came with the Shelby County Health Department.

In the opening years, my agrarian community’s closest health department kept me safe and oversaw my well-being. In the next, it afforded my family a livelihood by giving Dad a needed job … one that required our migration from the Magnolia State to the land of Volunteers.

As a playful lad in Falkner, Mississippi, whose row of freckles across the bridge of his nose rivaled the consistency of his dirty hands and bare feet, I dreaded a few things in life.

One was the pulling of loose teeth. Dad did it painlessly, but I disliked the experience nonetheless … save the discovery of the shiny new quarter underneath the pillow the next morning, as left overnight by the reliable Tooth Fairy.

One was stepping on broken glass while playing barefoot in the yard. Mom’s warnings came as frequently as thunderstorms in the muggy air of a summer afternoon; but I was a boy, and boys don’t listen.

One was picking purple hull peas in the big garden behind the house; if it had just come one of those afternoon showers, the ooze of the mud teased the space between my toes and that was good, but the threatened sting from the bevy of wasps hovering above the tall plants was bad.

One was chopping cotton in the heat of July; enough said.

One was getting shots. That’s where the Tippah County Health Department over in Ripley came into play. I wasn’t keen on needles, and the start of a new school season often meant getting the latest vaccine. That was done at the health department, compliments of a pretty nurse who understood the perils, and the inbred fears, of country kids.

In time, at least in my young mind, it became a pained association: School + vaccines = health department. Subsequently, the Tippah County facility became the least liked visit in my repertoire of boyhood journeys.

I can’t say with certainty, but I’m pretty sure the closest doctor practiced in Ripley. As a family, I don’t recall us having a regular physician. There was little money for health care so we made do with what we had at home; or, we’d visit the health department … meaning, in all likelihood, another shot from one of those perfumed ladies in white.

I liked the nurses … the place they worked, not so much.

But, suffice to say, if not for the health department I might not have survived childhood nor been allowed to attend school.

In years to come — March 1966, to be exact — Dad finally put his agriculture degree from Mississippi State University to use. Previously, he had fed the family on the meager income of a part-time carpenter and a country mechanic. Coupled with Mom’s weekly paycheck from the blue jean factory, we made ends meet.

But my parents eventually tired of just making ends meet, and they had three growing kids who needed opportunity. Not to mention, Dad needed new surroundings. The countryside of Mississippi had been a part of his being his entire life, but the demons of World War II followed him everywhere. We hoped crossing the state line into Tennessee would leave them behind.

When Dad was given the chance to work for the Shelby County Health Department, he took it. In the middle of a winter storm, we filled a rental truck, a blue and white ‘50s Chevy and Uncle Norris’ old GMC pickup with our family’s belongings and headed to a new town, one called Collierville … not too many miles from Germantown, and just beyond that was the big city of Memphis.

Dad was willing to work in Memphis, but he had no desire to live there. A 20-mile commute was fine with him.

In time, and because of his college degree, the health department made him a dairy inspector. As part of the job, he traveled for days at a time to the state’s northwest corner where he inspected dairy farms all over. He’d be gone all week, but returned home for the weekend.

Because of his absence, these weren’t the best times but they were necessary times. Plus, Dad loved the job. Farming was in his blood so working with those dairy farmers was a dream come true.

For years, he traveled from dairy to dairy testing the milk, inspecting the barns and assuring the dairymen weren’t taking shortcuts. Along the way, he breathed some of God’s freshest air. And his demons from the war — though they never disappeared — seemed held at bay by greener pastures and a wholesome way.

Dad ended his career with the health department as an environmentalist. He didn’t like it as much, but it gave him more time at home.

Grown kids soon headed off to college and Dad paid much of their way, but he relied on their student grants, summer jobs and campus gigs to pay the rest.

All three landed degrees, and each came from the working hands and gentle heart of a man who found opportunity years earlier doing what he loved and doing it well.

Dad retired after twenty-something years with the Shelby County Health Department. He died nine years later.

From childhood to adulthood, my life has been influenced in one way or another by the blue-collar souls of a county health department.

So, I guess this is as good a time as any to say thank you … from a veteran of war who needed a second chance, and a little freckle-faced boy who will never forget the joys of running barefoot in distant meadows of Mississippi green.


(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at


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