For Dr. William Potts-Datema, health and education have to work together in order to improve lives.
In his career, that’s been a resonating theme.
In 2019, he retired from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, after 13 years.
There, he managed programs reaching every state and territory, served in interagency coalitions and developed educational initiatives, specifically for school-aged children and youths.
“People who are well-educated live longer, happier and healthier lives. Young people who have health issues often have difficulty performing well in school, and chronic absenteeism is highly correlated with dropping out of school,” he said. “Fortunately, many of the chronic health issues are manageable with intervention on the public health side.”
Outside of his work as an employee of the CDC, he served in many partially-CDC-funded positions at other organizations throughout his career. This included roles at:
- Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
- The Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education.
- The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
- The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Part of what has driven this intense belief in education was his own experience as a first-generation college student. Growing up in Springfield, he was the son of a Dutch immigrant.
“I think we should do whatever we can to remove barriers for young people, whether that’s financial or social challenges,” he said. “Help them get to school and stay in school. Nothing could be better.”
First community health role: Providing AIDS education
As a Missouri State student, Potts-Datema studied education.
While he spent only a few years as a traditional teacher in Sparta, Missouri, much of his career could certainly be classified as education.
Shortly after getting his master’s degree in school counseling from Missouri State, he began working as the director of community health with the Red Cross. This was a pivotal role for him, where he began to provide outreach services to schools and other organizations in a 40-county region on many health topics.
At the time, AIDS prevention education was among the top concerns in the field.
“Approximately 25% of our blood supply came from blood drives at high schools, so I spent a lot of time building the donor pool,” he said. “With the AIDS epidemic, I also had to help develop materials and increase understanding of universal precautions at hospitals and clinics. We also had to create curriculum about how HIV was transmitted and how it was not.”
Colleague: “Bill has improved the lives of countless millions”
Potts-Datema credits his passion for policy work and board volunteerism — he has served on three international boards and nine national boards — in large part to his training as a Bear.
“Many times, I wound up in a position where I needed to connect people or connect a lot of groups,” he said. “I’m proud of the policy work I’ve been able to contribute to at each level that continues to have positive effects today.”
For example, he served on an early board of the AIDS Project of the Ozarks and was the founding coordinator of the national Student Health Advocacy Coalition. He also served on the founding committee for the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity and on the founding national board of Action for Healthy Kids.
“All of which are still going strong,” he said. Dr. Lloyd Kolbe, founding director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, has known Potts-Datema for more than 30 years.
“The CDC worked closely with Dr. Potts-Datema long before the agency finally succeeded in recruiting him,” Kolbe said. “Through his remarkable political acumen, and his sustained national and international leadership, Bill has improved the lives of countless millions of young people in the U.S. and abroad. And he’s not done yet.”
Advocating for change on the federal level
In 2018, Potts-Datema earned a Doctor of Public Health degree from the University of Georgia.
He is now an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and is reaping the benefits of living as a private citizen. He’s using his experience to engage in political activism.
During the Biden-Harris presidential campaign in 2020, he helped write proposals on the education policy committee.
“The transition teams took our work, which then became the foundation for some of the things you see in the federal platform.”
Remembering his father with an MSU scholarship
The anomaly on his resume is a sales position at Overhead Door, but it’s deeply rooted in family. His late father worked there and eventually took over the company.
When Potts-Datema was in school, he worked for his father. He promised to continue there for three years following his graduation.
He credits this experience for many valuable life lessons.
“I worked with the Missouri State University Foundation last year to set up a scholarship in the College of Business in my father’s name, Peter Datema,” Potts-Datema said.
As an active Alumni Association board member, and someone who received scholarship assistance to attend Missouri State, establishing the scholarship was important to him. He wanted to honor the memory of his father, who passed away in May 2020.
Among the selection criteria is a hope to identify future entrepreneurs. But he also hopes the assistance goes to a student who plans to give back to the community.
“That’s part of the value system,” he said. “And Missouri State really fostered that in me, too.”