June 18, 2011
Uttech’s tireless efforts recognized
Lapeer woman honored for her work with at-risk children, involvement in church
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Mary Jane Uttech, deputy public health director of Cortland County, in her office Thursday. Uttech was honored with the Alice Walker Award, for her community service, sense of justice and independent spirit.
Mary Jane “M.J.” Uttech loves children, so she keeps herself involved with young people by mentoring an 11-year-old girl through Family Counseling Services.
“It stretches you. It makes you go out there, do things you would not normally do. You look for places, you look for special events,” she said.
The Lapeer woman, 60, took her child to a Finger Lakes Trails Conference session in Cazenovia. The little girl had never been in a college dorm, so she had her first experience on an escalator, and using a swipe card, two small experiences that she really got a kick out of.
“I taught her how to bake. You start out with the basics. After that, in a little while, you say, ‘Let’s make cookies.’”
Uttech was thrilled when the little girls said, “I am going to do it.”
“I love kids. I just really enjoy children,” she said. “Sharing your time and abilities with other people is very rewarding. I would love to see more adults get involved with mentoring. The program I am involved with are all college students. I am the only adult,” she said.
Uttech, the deputy public health director at the Cortland County Health Department, was honored by the League of Women Voters with its Alice A. Walker Award early this month at a special dinner. The honor goes to a member of the community who embodies the leadership role of Walker, the late SUNY Cortland professor and dedicated volunteer.
“Well, I hadn’t heard of it before,” said Uttech in her office. “I was extremely surprised when I found out I was receiving the award ... I feel very honored and puzzled. I know a lot of women that do so much,” she said.
The honor goes to someone who is committed to service in the community, has an independent spirit, a clear sense of justice and an ability to focus on an area of need.
Uttech was nominated by Cindy Lewis of Cortlandville, who noted her activity helping children at risk, protecting the environment, knowledge of emergency preparedness and involvement in her church.
“First of all, I have a husband who is retired who is incredibly supportive. He is very involved in volunteering. We don’t spend much time watching TV. We just do things,” Uttech said.
A Cornell University graduate who grew up on the George Junior Republic campus where her dad worked, she is married to Chuck and they have one child, Cricket. Uttech retired as a lieutenant colonel and nurse in the U.S. Army, where she served for 22 years, working in her later years at the Walter Reed Army Hospital.
She moved back to the area in 1992 and started as a supervisor public health nurse in the Cortland County Health Department. She left for about a year and a half to start Kendal at Ithaca. She was its first administrator.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “I came back here as director of patient services. Two years later, I became the deputy public health director and have been ever since,” she said. She has also been filling in for the director of Patient Services the last year and a half.
“A typical day varies tremendously. It depends on what’s happening,” she said. “I check in with different areas I am responsible for,” she said.
She keeps tabs on the communicable diseases report, looks into the Home Health Agency, does administrative work and writes policies. There is a lot of coordination and thus many meetings she attends. She’s involved with emergency planning and preparedness, a key responsibility.
“We just had a drill last week, preparing how we would received ‘assets,’ from medicine to ventilators, from the Center for Disease Control,” she said.
She had to be on top of the response to the H1N1 virus a couple of years ago, knows how to set up a Special Needs Shelter for people not eligible for Red Cross shelters and must be able to respond to a biological terror in case of an attack.
Uttech said she and her husband are “big into gardening.”
They have a tillable garden that is a half acre in size. “If you added everything together, it would be an acre,” she said. They have lots of raspberries and gladioli. “We bring them in by the bucket,” she said.
The two freeze a lot of produce and can apple and tomato sauce.
Uttech makes a point to take the First Transit bus into work, to avoid use of the car. She recycles, which she says is the easiest thing that can be done for the environment. She is a member of the Finger Lakes Trail Conference. She said if you can get people out in nature, they will appreciate it more and take care of it.
She is a member of Gas Drilling Awareness for Cortland County and educates community groups about the dangers of hydrofracking, writing letters to legislators and traveling to Albany to express her concern on the issue. She spends a lot of time educating herself on the practice and would like to see more people involved in GDACC. “We have a small group of people that do a ton of work” she said.
The two sides, pro-gas drilling or anti gas drilling are so divided and Uttech thinks the gas companies want it that way. “I think we need to listen to each other,” she said.
She said today’s gas companies stance on hydrofracking and gas drilling remind her of the tobacco industry in the 1950s and ’60s, when they said of cigarette smoking, “This won’t hurt you. This is safe.”
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