What's in a Name?
> A Letter from the Dean
> Growing Up and Giving Back
> Griffith Leadership Center
> The Michigan Difference at Public Health
Sailing to Success:
> An Atypical Business Adventure
> Dean's Advisory Board
A Lasting Legacy:
> A New Scholarship
Meet the 2008 SPH Alumni Board of Governers
Print | E-mail this article
An Atypical Business Adventure
Sailing to Success: Dean’s Advisory Board member Richard Ronder, MPH ‘77, likes to joke that he’s somewhat out of place. “There are some really very accomplished and successful people on that board,” he says. “I kid (SPH Dean) Ken Warner that the only reason he keeps me on the board is because he needs balance and a representative from health behavior and health education.”
Ronder may not sound like a typical board member, but then, his life and career have not followed a “typical” trajectory in any respect. He graduated from Tulane with a bachelor’s degree in English, then worked several years as a merchant seaman before becoming a journalist. Meanwhile, he was a volunteer firefighter and paramedic.
With a growing interest in emergency care, he applied in 1975 to the School of Public Health. He recalls his interview with then-professor Scott Simonds, who informed him, “We’ve really never quite seen an application like yours.”
In the words of Humphrey Bogart, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Ronder earned his Master’s in Public Health from the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education in 1977. He did not follow the path of most HBHEs, who enter government or education positions. Through many twists and turns he became a successful entrepreneur, founding the Columbus Organization, a business that provides clinical staffing and consulting nationwide to state and local agencies and school districts serving people with disabilities. Over the years he has been a generous friend to SPH, giving both financial support and many years of service on the Dean’s Advisory Board.
“Richard is the original good guy,” says SPH Dean Ken Warner. “Self-effacing and funny, his modesty hides—or maybe attempts to hide—a sharp intellect that Richard generously focuses on SPH matters during, and between, Dean’s Advisory Board meetings.”
The regard is mutual.
“The School of Public Health is really blessed with top-ranked faculty and loyal alumni,” says Ronder.
“I’m still very close to Scott Simonds, and I’m still close to health education, but I’m a businessman.” He thinks the field of health behavior and health education holds huge systemic applications within public health and the business community at large. “There’s an abundance of opportunity for entrepreneurial applications.”
Ronder credits the guidance of his wife, Christina, for much of his business success. They met when Richard, then a reporter in the Boston area, interviewed Christina, then a special-education teacher, about a process she’d developed to help the newly blind share sighted reading materials through raised letters on special paper. Shortly after they married, Richard began thinking more about health care. Christina encouraged him to apply to graduate school. “I was interested in emergency care, and she said, ‘If you’re going to do something, go back to school.’” He did, while Christina worked as a special-education teacher to support them.
After completing his studies at Michigan, Ronder worked as Coordinator of EMS for Oakland County, (MI) for a while, but being a government employee made him “itchy,” he admits. After a group in Philadelphia recruited him to oversee the contracting of a number of emergency physician services, he started thinking about systems for delivering health care. Christina has a brother with Down Syndrome, and he realized there might be a niche in providing services for people with disabilities.
Columbus is now a going concern, but its beginnings were humble. “In 1984, expenses and income pretty much cancelled out each other,” Ronder recalls. “I’m literally down in my basement, calling [clients]. The basement leaked when it rained, and when we got water down there, we’d send the dog down to check the depth. While I’m seeking clients, Christina is tutoring thirty students a week and managing our two daughters.”Soon, though, he landed a couple of contracts, and Columbus Medical Services was off and running.
Today, the company has worked with more than 140 agencies in 44 states. Besides offering consulting services for working with people with disabilities, and supplying specially trained clinical staff to their organizations, Columbus was among the first to establish professional best practice guidelines in the disabilities industry. A number of states, including California, Tennessee, and Texas, now use guidelines developed with Columbus for setting and reviewing standards and measuring the quality of services delivered.
Following the increased services mandated by the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Ronder started Columbus Educational Services, to partner with school districts in supplying them with qualified special education and related service professionals. In a dramatic incident in 2001, the State of Hawaii, responding to a court decree, turned to Columbus for immediate help. “They asked us to get them 250 qualified special-education teachers immediately,” says Ronder.“And we delivered. We recruited a special-ed army, we credentialed them, and we relocated them to Hawaii.” Columbus Educational now works with school districts from California to Florida. “It’s a challenging task,” says Ronder, “but I’m very proud of our outcomes.”
He credits his time at the School of Public Health with giving him an overall perspective that enabled him to create his business. “It was the systematic thinking, the analytic skills,” he says, “and the understanding and demystification of health care.”
He is similarly pragmatic about himself and his work. “I like to tell people that when I moved to Michigan I worked at the UM Hospital—in housekeeping,” Ronder says. “I mopped floors and did whatever had to be done. It’s the same with the business now. When the wastebasket’s full, I empty it.”
Having served on the DAB for “I don’t know how long,” Ronder says he’s seen a welcome shift over the years in the efficacy of the Board.
“It used to be more show and tell,” he says. “I think it’s evolved. The board members are leaders, doers, and committed to the school; they want to be utilized, not entertained…most of the time.”
Ronder “has been particularly helpful in our efforts to think through complicated communications issues,” says Dean Warner, “One of the characteristics I particularly respect in Richard is his ability to be constructively critical of approaches we are taking, but never with a negative tone. Richard is a great contributor to the DAB, and, more generally, to his department, Health Behavior and Health Education, and the school.”