After nearly 50 years of combined service, two longtime COPH professors retire

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May is a month of endings and beginnings on college campuses.

This May, in addition to graduating 242 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students, the USF COPH said goodbye to two longtime, distinguished professors: Drs. Martha Coulter and Kathleen O’Rourke.

Drs. Martha Coulter (left) and Kathleen O’Rourke at their retirement send-off. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

Coulter, a professor of community and family health, has dedicated her career to improving the lives of families and children.

The Louisiana native received her BA in sociology from Louisiana State, MSW from Tulane University, MPH from the University of California at Berkeley and DrPH from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She came to the COPH in 1986, when the college was just two years old, and was named director of the Harrell Center in 1997. She’s also held visiting professorships at the University of California at San Diego and the University of Bergen in Bergen, Norway.

“Marti [Martha] is a fierce advocate for women and families and victims of domestic violence,” said Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of the COPH. “She is a partner with the legal agencies, courts and services that exist to support families in this community. She gives of herself unceasingly and without seeking any recognition whatsoever. She is one of the humblest people I know and has been an incredible force in this college since its infancy. She is a scholar, advocate and champion.”

Coulter—who has served the COPH for nearly a third of a century as a teacher, researcher and mentor—says the highlight of her time at the college was doing research and teaching that “really focused on practice. The Harrell Center, in particular, was an intermediary between research and practice. I am so grateful for it and its ability to let me do more of the research I wanted to do.”

In addition to advocacy, the Harrell Center conducts and translates research on families and violence, shaping it into usable information for practitioners, policy makers, government agencies and community leaders.

Unlike a lot of new retirees, Coulter doesn’t have any grandiose plans for the future. “I decided I don’t want to make any big plans until the end of the summer,” she said. “I want to give myself time to relax and visit family and then to sit and really think about my next step.”
Regardless of what that next step is, Coulter, who is now a professor emeritus, knows she’s not completely done with USF yet.

“I love interacting with the wonderful students, faculty and community. Hopefully I’ll still be able to do some of that.”

Drs. Coulter and O’Rourke delight in opening gifts and reading cards from COPH staff at their joint retirement party. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

Retiring on the same day as Coulter was Kathleen O’Rourke, chair for the last five years of epidemiology and biostatistics in the COPH.

O’Rourke, who grew up outside of Boston, received her BA, MPH and PhD from the University of Massachusetts.

One of the hallmarks of O’Rourke’s distinguished career has been selfless service. She has been a registered nurse, an intern with the CDC, a Fulbright scholar in Guatemala and a public health consultant before landing in academia. She has taught at the University of Texas and the Medical University of South Carolina before settling at USF in 2004.

O’Rourke’s work at USF has had a decidedly maternal and child health focus.

She joined USF as an associate professor and research director of the Chiles Center. In her time at the COPH she’s studied—among other things—the reproductive outcomes of those with post-traumatic stress disorder, immigrant reproductive health issues and cost-effective ways to monitor environmental chemicals in breast milk.

An animal lover (she has two standard poodles that she keeps around for “comic relief,” she says), O’Rourke has also had leadership roles in some innovative programs, including a partnership between the COPH and Lowry Park Zoo that enables veterinarians to learn public health assessments and apply them to the animal population.

“Kathleen has been a tremendous contributor to public health through her scholarship, her passion for teaching and leadership and through the care that she brings to everything she does,” said Petersen. “She led, almost single-handedly, the development of our online MPH program in epidemiology, still the only one in the country. And she embraced the bachelor’s program, creating some of the most powerful courses for our undergraduates.”

O’Rourke’s immediate plans for retirement include spending more time with her family, which includes her long-time partner, Dan, as well as her four grown children and two (soon to be three) grandchildren.

She also looks forward to gardening, quilting and unpacking. O’Rourke recently moved from the Tampa area to Titusville, on Florida’s Space Coast. “I’m from Massachusetts. I believe oceans should have waves, so I wanted to be closer to where the waves are,” she laughed. “And Tampa is a busy place. I am more of a small-town person.”

What’s next for O’Rourke after the plants have been potted, the packing paper has been tossed and the grandchildren have been sufficiently spoiled is anyone’s guess.

“I plan on volunteering and using some of my public health skills,” she said. “I know I will surely miss the students and, really, everyone at the college. Donna has been a phenomenal dean and the COPH is an amazing place. But I think the first thing I should do is figure out how to retire before I start adding all these activities. I might like retirement so much, I won’t do anything,” she joked.

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health