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Hackney turns college job into lifelong mission

Ray Hackney
Ray Hackney

Ray Hackney was never a straight “A” student like his sister was, but he was always a good enough student to believe in himself and convince his parents that he would be a doctor someday.

He sold himself on this respectable idea at the tender age of 7, when other boys were still stuck on more fanciful notions of becoming cowboys or firemen or astronauts.

Hackney grew up in Gastonia, a mill town of some 50,000 in Charlotte’s shadow.

His father was a claims agent for a freight company; his mother, a fourth-grade teacher.

It was not until he was pursuing a chemistry degree at Carolina, with one leg almost in the medical school’s door, that Hackney confronted the terrible truth. “I realized late in my college career that I didn’t have a passion for being a doctor, that it really wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Hackney said.

For the first time since second grade, Hackney didn’t know what he was going to do with his life, just as he was about to graduate from college in spring of 1972 and should have been embarking on his career.

He ended up talking to a chemistry professor to find out what exactly a person can do with a chemistry degree besides study medicine.

The professor ran down the list and on it was public health. Chemistry, the professor told him, is a great background for public health.

That meeting, Hackney can see now, was thefirst step on his journey to discovering his true passion.

‘Quest for high-quality results’

Hackney went on to earn a master of science in environmental sciences and engineering from Carolina in 1976, and a Ph.D. in parasitology and laboratory practice in 1989. While earning his master’s degree, Hackney took a job at the environment, health and safety office. It was the beginning of a 27-year career at Carolina that would earn him a 2006 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

As the University’s biological safety officer and industrial hygiene manager in the Department of Environment, Health and Safety (EHS), Hackney decodes complex federal and state regulations originating from multiple agencies, departments and levels of government. As one co-worker said in nominating him for the award, “He saved us all” when the Occupational Health and Safety Administration extended its workplace rules to university laboratories.

Nancy L. Davis, a research professor in microbiology and immunology, said her interaction with Hackney centers around her basic research in virology.

“In the last couple of years, during which our virus was classified as a Select Agent and the regulatory landscape changed dramatically, Ray’s expertise has become even more important,” Davis said.

Peter Reinhardt, director of EHS, credits Hackney with developing the University’s laboratory safety plan that has become a key tool for administrators, scientists and regulators to ensure safety and compliance. Labs that meet or exceed containment, ventilation and security standards ensure that Carolina will continue to receive the millions of dollars that sponsor research into AIDS, tuberculosis, SARS, bioterrorism, blood-borne pathogens, vaccine development and third-world public health.

Hackney manages eight staff members who, in October of 2001, responded to dozens of suspicious letters during the national anthrax scare. In 2003, when a contract employee was found to have SARS, Hackney helped the State Division of Public Health trace the contacts of two persons of special interest. Hackney also has served as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, mentors graduate students interested in occupational hygiene, participates on their master’s committees and presents at national conferences.

“These achievements are the results of long hours of hard work and attention to detail,” Reinhardt said. “He is unselfish and self-motivated in his quest for high quality results. It shows.”

The passion still burns

After graduating from Carolina in 1972, Hackney sent letters to 100 county health departments in North Carolina. He got a nibble from the New Hanover County office in Wilmington. He would spend the next two years inspecting everything from septic tanks to swimming pools. Hackney remembers the feeling of authority and purpose he felt when he stood up to a restaurant owner who had hidden the “B” grade Hackney gave the restaurant behind a book shelf. Hackney told the man to move it where people could see it, which was the whole point of the inspections.

Hackney had stumbled upon his passion. But it wasn’t until he returned to Carolina to pursue his master’s in public health — and a federal scholarship he had been counting on fell through — that he found his place when he applied for a half-time job in the University’s environment, health and safety office.

It so happened that Hackney began working in that office in the fall of 1974, just a few months after it was officially established to organize the University’s safety responsibilities and respond to new occupational safety and health laws. Hackney, for instance, was directly responsible for, or heavily involved in, the University’s response to requirements for abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint; hazard communication for employees; laboratory chemical hygiene; formaldehyde exposure; and pesticide exposure. More than three decades later, he is still at it, doing the work he loves.

“As I’ve grown, the job has grown with me and that is one of the great things about my job that I love,” Hackney said. “The challenges never end.”

And that chemistry degree, he is happy to report, came in handy after all.

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 27, 2006

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