MAILED: Jan. 3, 1997|
EAU CLAIRE -When Clarence Luchterhand traveled the state of Wisconsin in the 1950s and '60s in his role as head of the milk certification program for the state health department, he was struck by the lack of qualified people entering the public health field.
Others agreed, prompting the state's two professional environmental health organizations to create the Joint Committee on Education to develop an undergraduate program in Wisconsin. Luchterhand, known as "Mr. Public Health," was named committee chair.
So when Luchterhand visited UW-Eau Claire in the late '60s to discuss a bacteria problem in milk products with biology professor John Gerberich, he mentioned the need for an undergraduate program in the public health field. Gerberich suggested that UW-Eau Claire was the perfect home for such a program.
Twenty-five years and 426 graduates later, the environmental and public health program is still the only one of its kind in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa and one of just 25 accredited programs in the country.
"I will always honor the faculty and others for nurturing a wonderful project far beyond my wildest dreams," Luchterhand wrote in a letter to the department this fall. "When I see and hear about the young men and women (from UW-Eau Claire) who are now leaders in environmental health throughout the state and nation, in public service and industry, the lumps and bumps (in the planning process) seem far away."
On the 25th anniversary of its first graduate, the program - which has two faculty members and now offers a graduate degree in the field - has 329 alumni from its undergraduate program and 97 from its master's program.
Those graduates are presidents and vice presidents of private environmental consulting firms; environmental engineers and scientists for the nation's largest industries; environmental health specialists and sanitarians for county, state and federal health departments; teachers for health and safety programs; and industrial hygiene officers in the U.S. Navy.
"I believe our graduates have the most diverse employment records of any UW-Eau Claire department," Robert Nelson said of the program he has been a part of since 1972. "The graduates of our program are now leaders in the state in environmental and public health. Just about every health agency in Wisconsin has one or more of our graduates, and others can be found at agencies and industries throughout the country."
Pete Anderson, one of the first two graduates of the program, has moved among regulatory agencies and private industry since earning his degree in 1971. He is now the regulatory compliance manager of The Kroger Co. Columbus Bakery in Columbus, Ohio.
"The program was very good for my career," Anderson said. "I gleaned a lot of good information. I got a job within two weeks of graduating with the state Health Department. I stayed there five years and then went into industry. Everything I've done has stemmed from my experiences at Eau Claire."
And that, Anderson said, says a lot since the program was just getting started when he graduated. "I'm impressed with the pioneer work Luchterhand and Gerberich did with this program," he said. "They started it from scratch. They got people from the health department and water and sewer plant to teach those early classes so we'd get the basics."
The variety of graduates' career paths isn't surprising given the program's academic requirements, Nelson said.
"This is a strong comprehensive degree," Nelson said. "Our students take biology, chemistry and physics. It's a tough academic program. What you end up with is a broad base, and then you require specific courses that build on all that science. As a result, our graduates go in many directions."
Among those who used the program to launch a successful career is Lynn Laszewski, a 1981 graduate and the environmental compliance manager for state-owned property for the Wisconsin Department of Administration.
"UW-Eau Claire's program provided me with the basics to build on," Laszewski said. "My career has been more than I had hoped for. The federal regulations for hazardous waste were put into place just as I was graduating so I was able to ride that carpet. One of the most impressive things about the program is the diversity of jobs people can get with this degree."
Despite the success of its graduates, the program is still not well understood, Nelson said.
"Every environmental issue becomes a health issue," Nelson said. "When people are interested in the program we go through with them how everything is interconnected and how environmental health fits into the scheme of things. Environmental health is the first line of defense with respect to disease prevention, but it gets the least recognition."
There are 60 undergraduate and 20 graduate students enrolled in the program, a number that has been fairly consistent for many years, said Karl Erickson, associate professor of environmental and public health, who has been with the program since 1974.
"Someone who is good in all the sciences is hard to find so the program is self-limiting," Erickson said. "Often if someone does well in chemistry they don't do as well in biology, and someone who excels in biology might not do as well in chemistry. The people who make it in the program are very strong in the sciences."
Senior Mike Pocernich planned to study secondary education with an emphasis in the physical sciences when he came to UW-Eau Claire. But an English research paper put him in touch with faculty in the environmental and public health program.
"I just happened to come across the program, but it was an easy decision to switch majors," Pocernich said. "I decided I was more interested in hands-on work and work in the environment than teaching. It's still education but at a different level. I see a lot of growth in the field which is another reason I made the switch."
Eventually, Pocernich said he hopes to do consulting work for a private organization.
"I'm anxious to apply what I've learned and to continue learning," Pocernich said. "I've gotten a lot of useful information in the classroom, but I'm looking forward to the hands-on, people approach out in the working world."
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: April 22, 1997