When director Rick Partipilo started at Linn County Environmental Health Services 37 years ago, he never knew time would pass so quickly and that he would enjoy his job so much.
Partipilo, 68, retired last Wednesday, although he'll remain involved in some project work for the county.
He couldn't have imagined a better, more fulfilling career, he said: “It has been such a great opportunity. I’ve had other career opportunities, but always decided to stay here and I’m glad I did.”
Partipilo grew up in Portland and graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1969. He was always interested in science, majoring in biology and anthropology at Portland State University.
“It was about my junior year when I asked my adviser what kind of jobs I might get with my biology degree and he suggested I look into public health,” he said. “Portland State had a public health program.”
After graduation, Partipilo landed a job with Polk County Public Health. During his time there, he spent four months working at a refugee camp in Thailand, an experience he called "formative."
“We worked with Laotian refugees who had to leave their country after the Vietnam War because they had helped the United States,” he said. “We worked in Nong Khai, and I was with a group of health officials from Oregon that worked with the International Rescue Committee.
“Mount St. Helens had recently erupted, and when I told people I was from Oregon, they knew about it,” he continued. “The work was the same in Thailand as in Oregon, but it was so rewarding. There was so much need that it was almost impossible to do wrong.”
Partipilo experienced culture shock when he returned to Oregon.
“We take so much for granted,” he said.
Partipilo came to Linn County in 1982 as a senior environmental health specialist and was promoted to department director in 1987.
“Our ‘database’ was on index cards,” he said of those early years. “Our records were kept in spiral-bound notebooks and our staff used typewriters. We didn’t have computers.”
Technology gradually made its way into the system, first with a mainframe computer based in the courthouse.
“Former county administrator Bill Offutt walked into my office one day with an IBM personal computer under his arm and asked me if I wanted it,” Partipilo recalled. “I said, 'Sure.'”
Although the daily work remains the same, according to Partipilo, the complexity of regulations he and his staff must comply with has grown significantly.
“The rules have definitely gotten more complex,” he said. “I guess because of litigation.”
Partipilo's enjoyed his job because, “Nearly everything we do is tied to the land in some way. GIS (digital mapping) has become awfully useful for us.”
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The ability to graph data rapidly, he added, has greatly enhanced the work of Public Health staff members. “We have so much more powerful mapping available to us and accurate databases,” Partipilo said. “We can see an outbreak quickly.”
Partipilo said the most fun part of his job has been “getting out into the county and being with the folks of Linn County.”
Over his nearly 40 years with the department, Partipilo has been part of numerous interesting events, like a statewide hepatitis outbreak in the mid-1990s. “It affected a lot of restaurants," he said. "We set up shot clinics for that.”
Another interesting project, according to Partipilo, was working with Sweet Home after high arsenic levels were found in well water in certain parts of the city.
Partipilo and his staff have also spent a lot of time over the last 10 years researching potential pollution issues at the former Willamette Industries mill site in Sweet Home. The county took possession of the site in lieu of more than $500,000 in back taxes, and Partipilo’s department was charged with assessing its possible environmental issues.
“There is a lot of potential for the citizens of Sweet Home,” he said. “It’s a big project with a lot of potential.”
Partipilo described his current staff as outstanding.
“To a person, they are committed to serving the public with respect,” he said. “They want to work with customers and come to a meeting of the minds when there are problems.”
He also praised his replacement, Shane Sanderson, who will start work this week. Sanderson grew up in the Midwest, but is coming to Oregon from Las Vegas.
“I am very pleased with his selection,” Partipilo said. “He is very well-qualified and will be successful here.”
Now that he's retired, Partipilo and his wife, Terry, plan to travel.
“We met in organic chemistry class at Portland State,” he said. “She was a chemist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and she is retired, too.”
They have two sons, Stephan, 29, a photographer, and Chris, 27, who works with nonprofits.
“We have a large lot at our home in Salem and my wife likes to garden,” Partipilo said. “She would like a greenhouse and we plan to travel to Italy and Greece, where my family is from, and Holland, where her family is from.”
And Partipilo plans to ride his Harley Davidson motorcycle more often.
“My wife doesn’t like to ride on my two-wheeler, so we may rent a three-wheeler and make some trips,” he said.
Roger Nyquist, chairman of the Linn County Board of Commissioners, said Partipilo has “done a great job for us. He has set the tone of educating the public and creating successful partnerships. We are grateful for his service and his leadership.”