By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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More than a dozen dignitaries — political, tribal and health care leaders in the region — praised the longtime public health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties in an hourlong tribute at the Olympic Medical Center commissioners' meeting Wednesday in Port Angeles.
While the evening had the vibe of a retirement roast, Locke repeatedly has said he has no immediate plans to leave.
“This is really overwhelming,” Locke said.
“I was sort of psychologically prepared for a plaque and a handshake. This goes way beyond that.”
Began in 1987
Locke became the Clallam County health officer in December 1987 after county officials talked him into a six-month temporary stint.
“Now, 25 years later, that six months is far, far behind him and much to our benefit,” said Clallam County Health and Human Services Director Iva Burks in a separate recognition ceremony at the county commissioners' meeting Tuesday.
Locke said was glad he extended his “tour of duty, so to speak.
“It's been a wonderful experience,” he said.
County commissioners declared the entire week as Dr. Thomas Locke Appreciation Week.
OMC commissioners passed a proclamation honoring Locke on Wednesday.
“Dr. Locke has carried on his powers and duties with energy, dedication and wisdom, but he's also done it in partnership with many others,” OMC Chief Executive Officer Eric Lewis said.
“What I enjoy about Dr. Locke is the way he uses facts and research and the latest and greatest information available to make decisions in a very logical and scientific way. It's great having his brainpower here in Clallam County.”
A public health officer has an array of responsibilities: He or she works to prevents the spread of infectious diseases, declares the start and end of flu season, and enforces public health laws, among other duties.
Locke has chaired the state Board of Health and developed the first mutual-aid agreement for tribes and counties to work together on public health emergencies.
State Rep. Steve Tharinger, a former Clallam County commissioner, said Locke was affectionately known as “Dr. Doom” for his briefings on influenza outbreaks, West Nile virus, whooping cough and other public health emergencies.
“Tom, even though he was Dr. Doom, was helping us on the North Peninsula to stay healthy and well,” said Tharinger, a Sequim Democrat whose 24th Legislative District includes Clallam and Jefferson counties.
Tharinger, who read a letter to Locke from state Secretary of Health Mary Selecky, said public health is “by far the best investment we can make in our health for individuals and for the community.”
Forks Mayor and county Board of Health Chairman Bryon Monohon said Locke is “one of the most sophisticated communicators” and is noted for his “care, compassion and love.”
Other speakers included Kitsap County Health Officer Dr. Scott Lindquist, Jamestown S'Klallam Director of Health Services Brent Simcosky, Peninsula Behavioral Health Director Peter Casey, United Way of Clallam County Director Jody Moss, Volunteers in Medicine of the Olympics Director Larry Little, OMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Scott Kennedy, Infection Control Coordinator Dr. Penny Becker and medical adviser Dr. Mark Fischer.
Some shared stories about Locke's eccentricities, such as his penchant for wearing Hawaiian shirts while blasting music in his Volkswagen van or attending the Burning Man festival in Nevada.
Burks said Locke has taken on many important issues, including HIV and AIDS, and bridged the cultural worlds of tribes and local health departments.
“His concern, professionalism and knowledge are standards for all of us to emulate,” Burks said.
County Commissioner Mike Doherty described Locke as an “icon” in Indian Country.
“From tribal country across Clallam and Jefferson [counties] to the halls down in Olympia, I've personally witnessed his effectiveness,” Doherty said.
“We've been very fortunate because he could have moved on, I suspect, many times on to some other assignments or career opportunities but didn't.”
In 2005, Locke received the prestigious Warren Featherstone Reid Award for Excellence in Health Care.
His wife, Kris Locke, received the same award posthumously Oct. 19 for her commitment to tribal health care issues.
Kris Locke died of leukemia May 21 at the age of 61.
Locke said he was “very thankful” for the recognition, adding: “The only thing that would make it better is if my dear wife, Kris, could have been here with us as well.”
Locke said his wife taught him an important lesson: “You cannot accomplish anything alone.”
“When you honor someone in public health, it's never about just the individual,” Locke said.
“Public health is a whole system. It exists at a local and a state and a federal — even an international — level.
“I'm serving as the figurehead for a system and just a vast number of people that don't get near enough recognition or support or money,” Locke added.
“That's really what deserves to be honored.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.