MHA - Alumni Spotlights

Friday, March 9, 2018

Jay Smith

Health Administration - Class of '66

OKLAHOMA PUBLIC HEALTH PIONEER

He is 82 years young and for almost two-thirds of those years, his work has centered on public health in Oklahoma. In fact, when the OU College of Public Health got its start in 1966, Jay Smith was there, one of its very first graduate students. 

Two years earlier, Smith graduated with a degree in education. He landed a job teaching biology and chemistry in high school, but it took less than a year for him to realize that was not what he wanted to do with his life.

“There was an opening at the state health department for an immunization rep in Tulsa and I thought I’d do that just for the summer.  Now, 53 years later, I am still here,” he said, chuckling.

He might never have advanced so far were it not for the OU College of Public Health.

“The school of public health was just starting and I was excited to watch it begin,” Smith said.

Much has changed at the college over the years.

“Back then, the college was located in an old home on a corner near the campus and our administrative offices were in the house next door.”

There were no offices for faculty. In fact, he remembers taking tests back in a small closet space of the home.

“It really has come so far,” Smith said. “The field of public health has come a long way too. It is more respected now than it was at that time. People had no idea what public health was back then. When the college was first accredited, many didn’t know if people would come.”

Smith came and so did his classmates. He credits the education he received with advancing his long-standing career with the health department.

“When I became deputy commissioner for local health services in 1980, a position I held for about 3 to 4 years, there was a need in counties for administrators and I always wanted to do that to be involved with providing services directly to the public. So I requested to do that,” Smith explained.

He quickly learned that overseeing public health services in multiple counties would not be without its challenges.

“Many people think that you’ve seen one health department, you’ve seen them all, but not so. Each health department is different. So we have broad rules and overarching goals, but we have to go about implementing those in different ways, aligning our efforts with what it best for a particular county or population.”

“I would define public health as the science of trying to make the population healthier and of guarding the public against catastrophes and epidemics. It is the science of improving quality of life. I think it is critical to have colleges of public health. I think there should be one in every state, but that’s not how it is,” he said, adding that it makes his heart feel good to see how far the college has come.

Today, Smith serves as regional medical director with the department, overseeing staff and services in five counties.  At one time, his duties included oversight of health department clinical operations in ten counties. He left behind a career as a high school teacher to pursue a career in public health, but he did not leave education.

“I am still teaching. I teach every day in one way or another. It’s just not in the classroom,” Smith said.

After more than half a century in public health, he’s not yet sure he is ready to retire either.

“It’s a good job and I enjoy it. I always have enjoyed public health. I guess that’s why I stayed in it for 53 years,” he said. “Life is good.”