Greene County Commissioner Harold Bengsch has served the public in various positions for six decades. OI had the opportunity to sit down and chat with him about his career and his life in public service.
This is part one of a two part interview. Part two can be read at this link.
OI: You started life attending school in a one-room schoolhouse in Christian County…did you ever dream back then of doing the things you would have seen in your life?
Bengsch: I had no idea.
OI: What did you think you would grow up doing when you were a kid?
Bengsch: When I was a kid, I thought I’d grow up on the farm and be a farm boy. So that’s what I decided to do. I went to college and had a double major in science and agriculture.
One of the reasons for the double major is the year I graduated from high school is when Crick and his companion unraveled the structure of the DNA molecule and that really intrigued me. My ag professor in high school said ‘Harold, why don’t you get a double major in agriculture and you could get another in genetics?’
So that’s what I set out to do.
I thought I had a job upon graduation from college with the USDA in Maryland. In fact, my wife and I got married on the fact I had been offered the job. Well, that was in 1958 and a thing called the Eisenhower recession kicked in and the federal government froze all new hires. So consequently I was without a job.
I had to start looking and there was an opening with the health department in the laboratory. I took it and I’m not sorry.
OI: That was going to be my next question. You spent 45 years working in public health and you just fell into it?
Bengsch: Actually, I did! I really did. You know, there’s an old saying if you spend a year in public health it’s got you hooked and I really believe that. A lot of folks in public health are long termers.
If you have an inclination that you want to help people and you want to work with the community, public health is a wonderful career. It really fit me and I’m glad it happened that way.
OI: What would you consider your biggest accomplishment in your 45 years of public health service?
Bengsch: Moving two health departments into one, that is, bringing the county health department and the city health department into one for the community. That was a long term project.
It culminated in 1977 but it had been worked on since the mid-50s. And unlike many similar projects that had been failures, we didn’t do too much at one time. We combined one program at a time so that the change was not so massive and it worked very well.
The last vestige of moving the two programs together was bringing together two programs called public health nursing into one program called nursing. The other things went pretty smooth, and it wasn’t that nursing was a problem, there were just so many parts of nursing to bring together. It worked, and it’s been a real asset to the community.
OI: You have a saying on your [office] door, “there’s no limit to what can be accomplished if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Was there ever a point in your career where you wished you hadn’t gotten the credit?
Bengsch: That’s a good question. It’s not a matter of something, it’s a matter of which one you want to talk about!
OI: Pick one.
Bengsch: The Quarry Fire of 1973.
(OI note for those not familiar with the 1973 Quarry fire: A quarry was located at the corner of National and Trafficway. The quarry had been used until 1963, when it was then turned into a dump site for waste products. Health officials shut it down for good in 1972 out of fears of combustible materials on the site; an underground fire broke out on January 1, 1973 that released toxic gas into the air closing surrounding businesses for weeks or more.)
That a huge issue for this community, especially with it happening in the center of the city.
We had been working on shutting down the operations that were creating the amount of wood materials that went into that quarry. I had instructed our environmental department in 1970 to start building a case.
Now, in 1970, we didn’t have DNR (Department of National Resources) and we just the vestiges of what became the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency.) And the EPA was no help to us; we were on our own.
The fire raged for a month. We didn’t snuff it out, we very slowly were able to not extinguish the fire because there was so much heat. You’d go down up to 40 or 50 feet there was a lot of charcoaling going on because there was no oxygen. We’d already had one death there because of carbon monoxide poisoning. That’s what alerted us to the problem.
That was a disaster in the making. We had worked with both Cox and St. John’s ERs that if they suddenly saw an increase in respiratory illness, we were to be notified and we had already put together a potential evacuation of center city.
Bengsch: Oh yes. We already had to shut down some businesses along Trafficway because people couldn’t stand it. Both the odor as well as the smoke. The carbon monoxide level was high.
That was one that no one got credit for but there were a lot of people who wanted that fire out a lot faster than we put it out.
OI: So you spent 45 years in the health department, 20 years as the director and having to deal with all the government entities and hassle from that position. Why in the world would you immediately go into serving as a county commissioner?
Bengsch: That wasn’t the plan. However, there was a county elected official that came to me two or three days after I announced my retirement from the city and said he already had a campaign committee put together for me to run for County Commissioner, which was a shock to me.
But then there were an awful lot of people in the community who came to me and said “Harold, you should do it.”
My heart is still in serving people, and I saw that as a way to continue. And doing it in a manner like you said is stated in my motto. If you’re not concerned on who gets credit, you can get people to work together. When someone starts trying to take credit, you will see people back off. And I’ve found it’s a lot easier to draw flies with honey than it is with vinegar.
OI: I know you don’t like putting the spotlight on yourself, but what did it mean to you when the Springfield Greene County Health Department created an award named after you?
Bengsch: It was humbling a hundred times over. I never in my wildest imagination think an award would be named after me. What have I done? I’ve just enjoyed working with people and this is a great community to work with people.
I was more than honored, I was humbled. I still am.