In Memory of Dr. Helen P. Cleary, MPH, D.Sc., CHES (1920-2016)
Written by: Alyson Taub, EdD, MCHES
Professor Emerita of Health Education, New York University
First Executive Director, NCHEC
Dr. Helen Cleary, the driving force in the establishment of the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc. (NCHEC), died peacefully at home at the age of 96 on November 5, 2016. Due to her important role in spearheading certification, she received the first CHES credential (CHES #1), and served as the founding chair of the NCHEC Board of Commissioners.
Born and raised in Brookline, MA, she lived in Norfolk, MA until her death. From an early age, she demonstrated leadership and was a woman ahead of her time, earning a baccalaureate degree at Regis College in mathematics and graduate degrees in Public Health from Yale (MPH) and Harvard (Doctor of Science). Her first job was as a teacher of mathematics and science. She enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served until 1965, retiring with the rank of Lt. Colonel. Her early employment included the Lynn Tuberculosis and Health League, and the Norfolk County Tuberculosis Association. After graduating with her public health degree, she worked as a health educator at the Boston Health Department, Rehabilitation Council of Metropolitan Boston, Massachusetts Association for the Blind (as its Executive Director), and Coordinator of Rhode Island’s Regional Medical Program. After two years as a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Center for Community Health and Medical Care, she completed her career in academia as an instructor of health education at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Associate Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Her employment gave her insights into the many aspects of health education (school health, community health, medical care, college/university).
Dr. Cleary was also a leader and volunteer in local voluntary and governmental agencies (Town of Norfolk, Worcester Visiting Nurse Association, Central Massachusetts Division of the American Health Association, Central Massachusetts Health Systems Agency). Her professional activities included service as President of the New England Chapter of the Society for Public
Health Education (SOPHE), Governing Council representative of the American Public Health Association, and SOPHE President (1975). While traveling around the country as SOPHE President, Dr. Cleary became aware of the need for a clearer definition of what health educators do in practice. She encountered many who were unsure of their role and could not explain it to others. To address this need, Dr. Cleary became the leader of a decade long effort serving as chairperson of the National Task Force on the Preparation and Practice of Health Educators. The Task Force ultimately became NCHEC in 1988. She was tireless in keeping the Task Force on course, raising funds to support the effort, and inspiring others to volunteer their time.
Dr. Cleary was recognized by peers for her extraordinary leadership, vision, and being a role model, mentor, and friend to many. The Association for the Advancement of Health Education awarded her its Presidential Citation. Eta Sigma Gamma presented her with its Distinguished Service Award. SOPHE honored her as a Distinguished Fellow. When talking about the CHES credential, she emphasized that “we took time to do it right.” She always strived for excellence in her own work and expected nothing less from those working with her.
On a personal note, Helen was a role model for me. I was inspired by her passion for the profession, and her mission to promote it and the practice of health educators. When we were making presentations to gain support for certification, we often joked about ducking the tomatoes from opponents in the audience. I remember fondly the many long hours the Task Force spent in hotel rooms around the country debating and drafting documents to establish NCHEC. We didn’t have much funding so had to sneak food into the meeting rooms! She was always on task, leading the way, and extremely resourceful. I value the time that I was able to share with her.
A Celebration of Life will take place at her home on May 20, 2017 at 1 pm.