When Dr. Kenneth Bobb was asked to be Jackson County’s health officer in 1999, it was during the funeral for his predecessor, Dr. Joseph Black.
Dr. Black was only the third health officer the county had known, making Bobb out to be the fourth over a period of 100 years.
“The preacher was saying lots of nice things about Dr. Black, what all he had done for the community,” Bobb said. “I agreed to take the job only if they could get someone to say those things about me when I die.”
Sixteen years later, at age 87, Bobb is retiring from his role in public health and handing over the title and duties to Dr. Christopher Bunce, an infectious disease specialist.
Bunce, 55, is a part-time infectious disease specialist at Schneck Medical Center in Seymour. He also has a private outpatient practice in Carmel.
“I’m really happy to turn it over to another doctor, especially to one with Dr. Bunce’s credentials and age,” Bobb said. “The usual departure from this job is you have to die. I’m getting out of this alive.”
Historically, county health officers have been doctors who are retired. It wouldn’t be unusual, in the past, for the health officer to spend three months wintering in Florida, leaving the vital records secretary to run the health department, Bobb said.
But he said he believes that trend is changing.
“I go to a lot of the health officer meetings now and the doctors coming on are younger, better motivated to do the things that are really necessary for public health,” he said.
In his time as health officer, Bobb has had to deal with public health situations ranging from an outbreak of H1N1 flu and setting up clinics for mass flu immunizations to anthrax scares and most recently outbreaks of HIV and Hepatitis C.
But he is most proud of the progress the health department has made in becoming more visible in the community.
The department moved from a concrete block building owned by Dr. Black and leased to the county to its current location on West Second Street, a heavily traveled area.
“Other health officers are impressed with how much presence we have, compared to other county health departments,” Bobb said.
With state funding, Bobb also was able to expand the department’s staff by adding a public health coordinator/educator position.
“That was a real good addition to our health department,” he said.
Lin Montgomery serves in that position and said Bobb has been “a joy to work with.”
“His dedication to the overall health of the community and to the services the health department is charged with has been inspirational,” she said. “His leadership has been so solid. I look forward to working with Dr. Bunce, but I hope I never lose Dr. Bobb’s counsel.”
Although he’ll miss the daily interactions with the office staff and city and county government officials, Bobb said he has no regrets about his decision. Technically, it’s his third retirement, as he was a family practice doctor for many years in Seymour and then in Crothersville before becoming the health officer.
“I’m happy to leave it. Another term would be four years, and that’s too many,” he said. “I would like to have more time to do what I want to do.”
In the new year, Bobb plans to devote his time and energy to his other interests and passions including visiting residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities and fulfilling his duties as a Stephen minister in providing one-on-one Christian care to those going through tough times.
He often can be found at Lutheran Community Home, talking to residents and nurses, praying with them and even checking pulses and listening to people’s hearts.
“They are so happy to see me,” he said. “When you see the smiles on their faces, you can feel it from their heart and the more time you have, the less pulling at you to do other things, the better you are for them.”
Three years ago, Bobb became a Stephen minister and wants to become more involved by being an “extension of the right arm of the pastor,” he said.
He also plans to continue pushing for stronger public smoking laws in Seymour.
Bobb said he stopped smoking in 1976 at the age of 48. That was the year he was elected to be president of the Indiana Academy of Family Physicians.
“I thought to be spokesperson for the family doctors in the state of Indiana, it didn’t present a good image for me to be smoking, so I stopped,” he said.
It was a time when people’s thoughts and views of smoking were changing, especially doctors.
“We had vision enough to say we need to separate smoking from non-smoking. We were beginning to think it was unhealthy to smoke, but we hadn’t linked lung cancer to smoking yet,” he said.
Smoking was so prevalent that people did it on airplanes and even in hospitals.
He has been involved with the Smoke Free Seymour campaign since 2005 and plans to go before the city council this spring to request that the laws be strengthened to protect people from being exposed to second hand smoke. Bobb was involved with helping create Seymour’s current smoking ordinance.
Changes he wants to see made include extending the distance from 10 feet to 25 feet where smoking is allowed near public entrances, banning smoking at gatherings of 50 people or more and in all clubs and bars, public or private.
He also said he wants to see e-cigarettes and vaping also included in the city’s ordinance.
“I’ve seen the devastation of first- and second-hand smoke in my patients and in my friends and even in my dad,” Bobb said. “It does my heart good if someone stops smoking and I had something to do with it.”
The city has been ahead of the state on the smoking issue in the past by creating a smoking ordinance, and he would like to see Seymour take the lead again by becoming smoke free.
“There are not very many cities in the state that are smoke free,” he said. “I want us to be one of them.”
It won’t be easy and it may take time, but Bobb said he is willing to stay the course.
Even if the changes are not passed this year, Bobb said he believes the message is still making an impact.
“There will be a yield to it, because there will be some people we’ve interfaced with that will stop smoking,” he said. “You never know when you plant the seed and it will germinate and do what you want it to.”
He also plans to get more smoke free information into the local school system in the hopes of stopping kids from smoking before they start and getting their parents to quit too.
Most people who smoke know its bad for them and want to quit, but it’s a really hard habit to give up, Bobb added.
“Don’t stop trying to quit,” he said. “When we try to help people with smoking cessation, we aren’t condescending.
“It’s like any other disease. I’m not angry with people who come in with pneumonia or tuberculosis or even alcoholism, and I’m not angry with you for smoking. I’m angry with the habit and all those things that are conducive to the habit, but I’m not angry at you.”