Walking into Harold Bengsch’s Greene County office, it doesn’t take long to see the sign: “There is no limit to what can be accomplished when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
The county commissioner calls it his life motto. It’s served him throughout his 60-year career in public service, 45 years of which was spent working for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.
“If you follow that motto,” Bengsch says, “things will happen that are good for the community, and that’s what’s important.”
Looking back on the decades, Bengsch points to four accomplishments that have brought about the most good: merging the city and county health departments in the 1970s; establishing a federally qualified community health center in Springfield in the early 2000s; passing a county sales tax in 2017 that supported a new Greene County jail and the Family Justice Center; and, most recently, developing mental health first aid for youth through Community Partnership of the Ozarks.
While Bengsch had an instrumental role in each, he deflects the thought.
“It’s other people that are important,” he says.
What he can’t deflect are the accolades and recognition with his name on it. For instance, the Health Department office he directed for 20 years now is called the Harold K. Bengsch Building. And the department’s newly named Harold K. Bengsch Award was created to recognize collaboration across sectors to protect and improve public health.
Those who know Bengsch best refer often to his ability to unify people and processes. The merger of the city and county health departments is a case in point.
“It really took someone with Harold’s unique understanding of public health,” says fellow county Commissioner Bob Dixon. “That’s a good example of his unique brand of collaboration, and I don’t know that anyone else could have done it. When you have two different types of government and those departments, they bring unique challenges, statutory authorizations, purposes and goals.”
Bengsch recalls working on the project early on in his career. He started on the city side in 1959, and at the time officials already had decided to make the merger. But it was a slow process.
“That had been tried in other communities and failed. We tried it a little bit different,” he says. “Rather than merging both departments at one time, we began merging programs one at a time.”
By 1977, the health departments were completely merged.
Another lengthy effort was in earning the status and funds for a federally qualified health clinic, today known as the Jordan Valley Community Health Center. A community health committee Bengsch served on was persistent to meet the needs of the underinsured.
“Our grant failed twice,” he recalls. “I went back to the committee on the second failure and said, ‘Do you want to put the effort in one more time?’ The answer was yes, unanimously.”
The third time was the charm.
Board work has been a constant in Bengsch’s career – and still is to this day. At 85 years old, he serves over 20 community organizations.
Brian Fogle, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks president, has had a seat next to Bengsch on many public boards. He knows what Bengsch brings to the table.
“He’s an optimistic, cheerful person. Sometimes, you need that optimism when there’s challenges facing you,” Fogle says.
Peers say Bengsch has provided a steady hand through public crises and health issues over the years – from the 1968 H3N2 flu in which 60,000 doses of a vaccine were administered in the Ozarks to leading conversations and understanding about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and responding to the 2007 ice storm. Bengsch has been an adviser during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Bengsch shifted from public health to county government when he retired as executive director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department in 2004 and was elected to serve on the Greene County Commission the next year. He’s finishing out his last term, which ends in December.
“I’ll be retiring at the end of my term. I serve on numerous agency boards and I will continue until they don’t want me any longer,” he says.
Two of those are statewide seats: the Child Fatality Review Program State Panel, which he’s chaired, and as a governor appointee on the Missouri Homeland Security Advisory Council.
He’s also earned national and international awards – three from the International Association for Food Protection as well as the American Public Health Association’s Roemer Prize, recognizing one local health officer’s creative and innovative public health work each year.
On the Bengsch
As he winds down his career, Bengsch shares his thoughts on business, management and public health.
What is the key to collaboration?
“People have to be willing to take on new responsibilities and maybe give up responsibilities because someone has the resources to do them better. It’s when you’re working together, that’s when things happen.”
What was your first job?
“On the farm [in Billings]. I’m a farm kid. I was raised on the farm – dairy and mixed grain. I got an early start understanding what sun up and sun down meant.”
What is your management style?
“It’s very simple. Put a lot of effort up front when you’re interviewing people for a job. Hire the right people. When you have the right people in place, make sure they have the tools and resources to do what you hired them to do and then get out of their way.”
When did public service take root in your career?
“It didn’t take long after joining the Health Department [in 1959] that I really felt my niche, if you want to call it that, would be in public service. I could see through the department the good things that were happening in the community. But for the most part, there was very little recognition the health department was getting for it.”
What’s the role of business in public health?
“A vibrant and economical oriented community is usually associated with excellent public health and private health care for its citizens. Also, doing the best they can with the resources available in trying to address those who have problems accessing adequate health care. That’s where Jordan Valley [Community Health Center] becomes so important. It’s one of the cogs in the wheel that help lead to a vibrant economy in a community.”
What do people need to know about public service?
“There are two things you don’t need to worry about: One is money and the other is recognition. Sometimes those things just don’t occur in public service all that much.”
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