Dr. Gary Babcoke Gives Stethescope A Rest After 33 Years As Top Doc In County
When an era ends, you might expect some sort of sound.
A loud bang, maybe.
Certainly a thump as the wheel of time completes a revolution.
There was none of that as Dr. Gary Babcoke ended 33 years as Porter County’s Health Officer.
But that is more a tribute to how the unassuming family doctor wanted it. He is throwback to the doctor who is as much a part of his community as a leader in it. He sees his service to his adopted hometown as just something everyone does.
“It has been a distinct honor to serve the citizens of Porter County as their health officer for the past 33 years,” he said. “I have been privileged to work with dedicated health board members and extraordinary talented and committed health department staff.”
While serving as health officer, Babcoke kept up his practice as a family practitioner with the Westchester Medical Group in Chesterton. He also has retired there.
“You know, I really feel great about being part of the community and of county government,” he said.
Even though he was approved by the County Health Board which is itself an appointed group and therefore chosen by politicians, he kept his own position, as he proudly observed, “An apolitical job.
“I have been the health officer under both Democratic and Republican administration, under a county council and county commissioners from both parties and I’ve always had a good experience and good support from those people in those positions.
“Plus, I always felt I knew what was going on in the county.”
By statute, the commissioners appoint the seven-person Board of Health. The board then selects the health officer
“So, they’re basically your boss,” Dr. Babcoke said.
The job of the county’s top health officer is to establish a health department, formulate the county health plan, hire and fire the county health employees, all the while carrying on all the things mandated by the state statutes and previous county ordinances.
“The state has a lot to do with what we will do,” Dr. Babcoke said. “In Indiana, most health officers are part-time. A few of the larger counties, like Marion and St. Joe County is where they have full-time people.
“The rest of us in the 90-something counties are part-time.
He has hired an overall administrator, Keith Letta, as well as a nursing supervisor, Connie Rudd, and Dave Hollenbach, the lawyer for the department for 34 years.
“I hired good administrators and they figured out how to meet state statutes. Maybe, in immunization times, I’d be there every day but, mostly, I just had to check in every other day and things ran right.”
He said he learned, even before his county job, that the success of the group was more rooted in who he hired and how they did their jobs than any individual accomplishment he might have.
Which is sort of how he ended up in charge.
“I grew up in Anderson, went down to Hanover College, the I.U. School of Medicine and interned in Evansville.
“I came up to Lake County to start my practice, about nine years in Cedar Lake. Then I relocated over into Porter County, in 1971-72.”
After traveling up and down the Hoosier state, he had found his permanent place in it. A member of his Bethlehem Lutheran Church congregation was a county official. They had become friends, when he said, “Doc, you oughta be the county health officer. I was not interested then,” Dr. Babcoke said.
“So he got me appointed to the Board of Health. After several years, then I was ready.”
He also had another important achievement.
“One of those things I had done was put several years in as an Indiana National Guard physician and company and battalion commander then state surgeon,” he said.
“One of the things I learned was to get a good staff and utilize them.
“I might say, ‘OK, staff we’re gonna move this battalion of five medical companies; make me a plan bring I to me in an hour.’ ”
Similarly he said, he could have a professional staff to manage the “day-to-day things” in the county.
The Porter County Health Department is composed of five divisions/sections: Environmental, Food Service, Public Health Nursing, Vital Records and Public Health Emergency Response & Preparedness.
“But I also know if something goes wrong, it’s always going to be my fault,” Dr. Babcoke said.
He likes the traditions of the county health department, with only three administrators ever.
But he also made an indelible imprint on it.
He hired Letta, directly out of Valparaiso University s a sanitarian, a position which has evolved into health inspector, raising the level of service his department could expect.
“I have been really lucky to hire such good people,” he said.
“We made the decision early on to only have people that are well-trained. We’ve been successful in doing it. All of our nurses have a bachelor’s on nursing, not as aides or two-year degrees.
“All of my sanitation and restaurant inspectors have college degrees, eligible to be certified by the state. Working towards those goals has been rewarding.”
The state of Indiana noticed.
“We are well-respected; they (the state) will call us and ask if they can run new programs by us. We were always happy to get those calls; it means we are doing the right things.”
He and wife, Patty, have conjoined families as both had previous marriages.
So one of his biggest joys, he said, has been watching his “swarm” grow up and find their own successes in the world, jobs and situations he will gladly brag about much more than his own contributions.
His retirement, he said, will be in enjoying the grown children as well as the grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Dr. Babcoke said he was never really sure it would all work out so swell, but he always knew if he worked hard and that medicine was field he truly loved, then it would as satisfying as it has been.
“I would say it is one of the high points in my life, working in Porter County and in the public health department, he said.
“I have been so happy. Everyone oughta be so lucky.”