An Incredible Life Serving the Public and Giving Back
After completing an undergraduate science degree in Florida and working summers at the Manatee Reservoir water treatment plant as a field sampler and lab analyst, Robert Kay, DrPH, (MPH ’78) was hired as a Physical Scientist in 1971 by the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration in Chicago. This agency became the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only weeks after Dr. Kay started, and he began evaluating proposed Federally funded or permitted projects as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). While the EPA considered the impacts on both health and environment, Dr. Kay said he decided more attention needed to be given to assessing and protecting human health from the impact of these projects. He thus pursued his MPH degree at UIC SPH while continuing to work full-time.
“The government agreed to pay for my MPH, but I had to make up the hours I spent at school,” he said. “It was hard. I would take one or two classes each semester, so it took several years to get through it all.” Hard, but definitely worth it, says Dr. Kay. Because he credits UIC for equipping him with the tools and skills needed to better protect public health, he and his wife, Linda, will be leaving a generous planned gift to provide for public health scholarships.
While pursuing his MPH degree, Dr. Kay conducted an independent study addressing the health impact of chlorinated and non-chlorinated sewage wastewater discharges upon downstream waters and public usage of these waters. He was asked to present his study at a state-wide conference where the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was also presenting its views. Dr. Kay’s efforts caught the attention of the CDC and in early 1979, he was offered an Environmental Health Scientist position. After working with the CDC for five years focusing on NEPA, Dr. Kay was asked if he would move to the newly formed Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) because they needed someone with his multi-disciplinary public health skills. ATSDR was tasked with evaluating the public health impact of hazardous waste sites all over the U.S., to work closely with EPA in identifying potentially exposed populations, and to prioritize which sites needed special timing and measures to protect populations at current or future health risk.
Dr. Kay went on to pursue a doctorate degree and attended The Johns Hopkins University as a Kellogg Fellow to obtain a his DrPH in public health policy and management. For his dissertation thesis, he conducted a national study on house fires. After returning to ATSDR, he became a training manager, developing and conducting courses for health assessors in ATSDR, CDC, and 33 cooperative agreement states. In addition, he led training teams in many different countries that needed help with their hazardous wastes sites and spills including Mexico, Spain, Portugal, and Taiwan.
Dr. Kay retired in 2009, after 38 years of Federal service. He says that “Every day is a Saturday.” That does not mean that this ever-inquisitive man and his wife have slowed down one bit. He started his own on-line book store, called Bob’s Best Books and Linda works with Night Light’s Kids’ Club and Good News Club mentoring and reading with grade school children.
Dr. Kay’s love of school is one of the reasons that he and Linda have decided to leave planned gifts to all of the schools they attended. They hope their gifts will be used for students who choose to study at the school, as opposed to on-line. “I think they would definitely get a lot more out of the program,” he said, pointing to the need for community involvement when getting an MPH. “If someone is only getting an on-line view, they are not getting their feet wet.”
And while the couple is generously donating to several institutions, Dr. Kay admits to an extra affinity for UIC. “I have a special feeling for UIC because they were the first to provide me with the skills and knowledge needed to protect public health,” he said.