So long, Margene

Published 9:58 am Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Margene Gunderson, the head of Public Health in Austin for 20 years, has taken a job in Olmsted County. -- Eric Johnson/

After 20 years, director is leaving Public Health for Olmsted County

The county will soon be different, but Margene Gunderson’s mission will be the same.

After more than 20 years in Mower County, Gunderson is leaving her role as director of Public Health to take a job as one of four associate directors of Public Health in Olmsted County.

When she leaves Mower County Oct. 14, she’ll be continuing a role she loves.

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“It’s been a perfect fit for me,” Gunderson said. “I absolutely love it. I love what I’m doing. I think God sent me a gift, because I certainly could have gone a different direction.”

As Public Health director, Gunderson has been one of the community’s key proponents of health.

In simple terms, Gunderson described Public Health as prevention. While some people are born with health conditions, Public Health addresses mostly human behaviors that affect health. The public must then have a willingness to change in a beneficial way, she said.

“It’s a tough job because not everybody understands that, so it’s a constant sell to try to convince people of the importance of prevention,” Gunderson said.

Gunderson said her office must bring together the science and community efforts to improve a population’s health.

However, it can be difficult to get ahead.

“We’re constantly focused on catching people that are falling off the cliff instead of sort of doing some things with them,” she said.

‘I love it all’

Though addressing a community’s health may be a daunting task, Gunderson said there are affordable and effective methods. In fact, she said many of the expenses and programs save money down the line.

“It’s cost effective,” she said.

Gunderson will head the department on children, family and community, which she said will be similar to what she’s doing now but on a larger scale. While that may be an area she loves, Gunderson said health has been a passion of hers for decades.

“I love it all,” she said of Public Health.

Though she’ll be doing many of the same things in Olmsted County, Gunderson noted there will be differences.

“The approach to Public Health might be a little bit different, but the recipe is the same,” Gunderson said.

With the Mayo Clinic as one of its chief employers, Gunderson said Rochester is a health-focused town. But that doesn’t mean the new city won’t have its challenges for its newest health advocate.

After years in Mower County, Gunderson said she is well-connected in the community. She’ll need to establish herself in Rochester and Olmsted County.

“You can develop relationships with some pretty key people who can help you sort of get things done,” Gunderson said. “My fear in kind of a bigger county is that’s going to be tougher for me to do.”

Gunderson will have more resources at her disposal in Olmsted County, as she’ll have an epidemiologist to help with research, something she’s had to do now. That should allow Gunderson to focus more time on projects and other duties.

After two decades in Mower County, there wasn’t one thing that inspired Gunderson to move. It just felt like an opportunity she should take.

“Personally and professionally, it just felt right,” she said.

She had plenty of support from her sons, Marcus, 21, and Connor, 19.

“Their answer to me was ‘you’ve got to do this,’” Gunderson said.

It will be an adjustment for Margene’s husband, Brent, too. Brent is the Social Services director and currently works in the same building as Public Health. However, Gunderson said she doesn’t see him often during the day outside of lunch. Brent plans to continue working with Human Services, and the couple will still reside in Mower County.

‘It’s changed so much’

Under her leadership, a number of health factors have been addressed in Mower County, like working with the senior population, pre-conception health, pregnancy health, young adult’s health and more.

Gunderson admitted that not all the projects she’s overseen have been successes. She and her staff have had to adapt to what works and what hasn’t.

“You can’t keep doing the same thing if it’s not working,” she said.

Public Health looks different than when she started, Gunderson admitted. Programs’ effects in the community have become more important than when she first started, Gunderson said. Public Health officials must form a plan of how to promote programs in the community and make it a community effort.

“It’s changed so much,” Gunderson said of her field.

Still, Gunderson has helped bring many new successful projects to Mower County.

She’s been one key local supporter of the State Health Improvement Program (SHIP). SHIP funds were used to buy snack carts that feature healthy food at area elementary schools, purchase no smoking signs after Riverland Community College went smoke-free, place bike racks at 12 sites and help support Hy-Vee’s garden, among many other projects.

But the work won’t end with Gunderson’s departure, she warned.

“Public Health is not Margene Gunderson,” she said. “It’s everybody in the community working toward improving the health of each other. I’m replaceable.”

‘Sadly missed’

After pouring her heart into the job, Gunderson said it won’t be easy to leave her staff and accomplishments behind.

“To leave the department will be very tough,” Gunderson said.

Still, she said she’s confident in the department’s future.

“I’m 110 percent positive they’ll continue to do the great work they’re doing,” she said.

She also noted she’s been thankful to the community for their involvement in the department’s projects.

Gunderson said she may one day venture into other work. Like one day, she’d like to teach a college class to tell students what to expect when seeking careers in Public Health. Still, Gunderson said she’d never leave the health field.

As the commissioners said during Tuesday’s county board meeting, Gunderson will be missed when she starts in Olmsted Oct. 17.

“You’ll be sadly missed,” Commissioner Ray Tucker said. “Best of luck in the big city over there.”