ONE ON ONE | Matthew A. Stefanak Health commissioner translates science into action

Who most influenced your life?
My father [Matthew]. He is a guy I think about every day. He was in the Marine Corps and was wounded on Guadalcanal. He was a really hard-working, uncomplaining man who taught me the value of taking care of the land.
Who are your public health heroes?
Dr. C. William Keck, associate dean at NEOUCOM. He was my boss when I worked at NEOUCOM, and is Akron city health commissioner. Known as the "velvet hammer," he demonstrates commitment to public health principles in a way that brings people together.
Dr. J. Nick Baird, director of the Ohio Department of Health. He has taken some courageous stands, including legislation involving the tobacco interests, and the governor backed him.
Kenneth Zinz, past president of the Mahoning County Health Board and Austintown trustee. He is one of the most decent people I know. Public health heroes don't necessarily have to be public health professionals. He learns quickly, understands relationships, and I saw him work to empower the board and me and the people that work here to do our jobs better.
What do you like best about Mahoning County?
The people I work with.
What is your favorite food?
If your favorite food is what you consume every day with the same relish, then it's martini olives and Starbuck's Sumatra coffee. That is a stock answer from my wife for me.
What is your all-time favorite movie?
My 5-year-old son, Matthew, dictates my viewing tastes. We watch "Babe" at least once a week.
What one thing would help turn around the fortunes of the Mahoning Valley?
Time. The next generation won't have the same baggage ... always remembering the way things were.
What in the public health arena can help make the Mahoning Valley a more attractive place to live?
We need to address the health disparities that exist between people in the city and the suburbs. It really is a tale of two cities. Reducing disparities will be a major part of what public health is about in the next decade.
What is your philosophy of life?
I have "Matt's Rules of Public Health Practice" on my office wall.
UPublic health workers may work in city hall, but sometimes they have to fight city hall.
UNever get so mad at your opponents (and friends) that you can't make a deal with them in the morning.
UWhen you have to kick a reluctant partner in the behind, don't leave your own footprint.
UGet someone else to do your heavy lifting.
UTake advantage of herd immunity (form coalitions).
UWeakness is provocative.
UDance with the one who brung ya.
UWhen the going gets tough, offer them coffee and doughnuts.
What is your pet peeve?
People in leadership positions who won't lead.
What is your favorite vacation?
Anywhere you can get by train. I developed a fear of flying in adulthood. Last summer, we went fly fishing and digging for dinosaur fossils in Montana.
If you could have breakfast with any person in the world, living or dead, who would that be?
Oscar Wilde. He was reputed to be a great conversationalist. I think he would lead the conversation. I think we are all enthralled by people who charm us. Isn't that why Jim Traficant is in office?
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
A fighter pilot, until I found out my eyesight was 20/400. My uncle was a squadron commander in the Air Force. I wanted to be like him.
What is the most pressing specific public health problem we as a people face?
Public health organizations exist to protect and promote health. A growing problem is obesity, and I don't see improvement. We haven't come up with a scientific solution yet.
What is there about you that people might not know?
I haven't always been a stern uptight figure. I once danced with Arab girls in the Sahara and drank banana beer with pygmies in the Congo Rain Forest.

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