“This wouldn’t happen if I were still Mayor,” declared former Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, right, about Health Director Evonda Thomas-Smith’s decision to step down.                             Photo by Bob Seidenberg

District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren said he met then-City Health Director Evonda Thomas-Smith on a Halloween day a few years back, when officials were dealing with a norovirus that had broken out at Washington Elementary School.

Briefing Ms. Thomas-Smith on the details, Dr. Goren said he also pressed for an okay to hold the school’s Halloween parade – a longstanding tradition, “and Evonda said, ‘No,’ he recalled, sharing the story at a farewell party for Ms. Thomas-Smith March 22.

Dr. Goren said he pushed a little further to get permission and Dr. Thomas-Smith, a registered nurse with a public health background, held her ground.

From that experience Dr. Goren said, he stood not only, “in awe of the partnership we have – but in the piece where the expertise came to serve us, serve children, and the adults who were in  that building who needed the standard of public health which you have given to this city through so many years.”

A number of other speakers paid tribute at an emotional farewell party held at the Morton Civic Center on March 22, Dr. Thomas-Smith’s last day after 14 years with the City in the forefront of public health.

Taking note of the turnout, Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, the lone City Council member to attend, said he could not recall any current City staff member who “has been able to leverage our community partners the way you have.”

Dr. Thomas-Smith began work at the city in 2005 as Division Chief of Public Health and in January 2008 was named Evanston’s  Public Health  Director. At retirement, she served as Director of the City’s Health and Human Services Department.

During her tenure, Dr. Thomas-Smith helped establish the first federally qualified health center for Evanston, the Erie Evanston Skokie Health Center, where community residents with limited resources can receive medical care.

In 2007 she began “Women Out Walking,” a 12-week program which involves health education and walking to promote wellness.

Some of her  other accomplishments included campaigns against tobacco use among young people (Tobacco 21), and “Rethink Your Drink,” creating awareness about the high sugar content of soft drinks.

She spearheaded the Evanston project for local needs assessments – a painstaking five-year strategic planning process by the Department to identify community priorities and needs, ensuring Evanston Health and Human Services maintains its State certification as certified health department

In her job, Dr. Thomas-Smith followed  in the footsteps of C. Louise Brown, a strong health director in her own right, who retired in 2000.

At the farewell ceremony, Ms. Brown noted, “It is not easy to come into a City like Evanston as an outsider. You almost have to be an Evanstonian for years, in fact, for some people to accept you. But Evonda came in with enthusiasm and grace and love of people, and her ability to just embrace people just made her real for Evanston. She brought us to a higher level.”

 Monique Parsons, president and CEO of McGaw YMCA, and  Karen Singer, CEO and president of  YWCA Evanston/North Shore, started their public service around the same time and were in the same Leadership Evanston program with Dr. Thomas-Smith 14 years ago.

  Ms. Parsons said Dr. Thomas-Smith, though a close friend of the two, always maintained a professional focus, which “kept me aligned and kept me focused on our ultimate goal, and that was to be of service to this community.”

In that leadership class, Ms. Singer recalled Dr. Thomas-Smith telling the group she had started running marathons, a revelation that spurred Ms. Singer to begin running again too.

“At that moment,” she told her audience, “I knew that Evonda was going to become a true friend, a true partner and that I would always stand in awe of her ability to run a marathon, no matter what kind of marathon it was.

 “You leave a huge hole in the city and in my heart,” she said to Dr. Thomas-Smith. “You have been the best, most truthful friend with such integrity and passion, I stand in awe and honor of having been your friend and partner for so long.”

Sheila Merry, Executive Director of Cradle to Career, a collaborative partnership that works to remove barriers to resources, said she felt Dr. Thomas-Smith’s influence at a retreat when she  asked her to look at the goals she had drawn up for the organization.

She said Dr. Thomas-Smith helped her reframe the group’s goals through an “equity lens,” – convincing her that “we were not about changing the children and families of our community, but we were about changing the systems that have undermined the children and families of our community for so long.”

One of the many other speakers at the event, Dr. Terry Mason, the CEO of the Cook County Department of Public Health, recalled working  with Dr. Thomas-Smith, earlier in their careers at Michael Reese Hospital.

He noted that many of the positive traits that speakers mentioned about Dr. Thomas-Smith “are attributes of good nursing.” They include the initiative to get things done.

“If you need it she’ll be there,” he said. “She’ll make it happen, but she’ll make it happen right,” he said.

After the event, Dr. Thomas-Smith said she intends to stay involved in public health.

During last year’s City budget process, she had raised concern about the effect of deep cuts in the 22-member department, which included the Assistant Health Director and Public Health Educator positions, raising concern it would jeopardize certification from the state.

Going forward, she said, “I hope the public health system stays intact, because local control for public health is critical for our jurisdiction. When I think of clean air and safe food, that’s what we do,” she said. “People get it when there is a crisis, but in the absence of a crisis we’re just doing our work, assuring optimal health for others,” she said.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.