By Todd Franko
Dr. Amy Acton had no expectation last winter to be picked by Gov. Mike DeWine as the director of the Ohio Department of Health.
She had never met DeWine. She says she’s as nonpolitical as they come. And she smiles when politely dodging who she voted for – which says she either didn’t vote or voted for the other guy.
So when he called her about the vacancy, she let it all out about what was wrong with Ohio public health care and what needed to be done differently – after all, she wasn’t going to get the job. Well, she got the job.
Amy Acton, MD, MPH, was appointed director of health for the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) by Governor Mike DeWine in February 2019. A licensed physician in preventive medicine with a master’s degree in public health, Dr. Acton has more than 30 years of experience in medical practice, government and community service, health care policy and advocacy, academic and nonprofit administration, consulting, teaching and data analysis
What she must have said was surely powerful, but how she said it was probably more powerful. She unloaded on me about vital Ohio health needs for 30 minutes nonstop. Then I asked her my second question.
It comes from a passionate soul. It comes from a feisty spirit.
But mainly, it comes from Youngstown.
Here’s where we should back up a bit.
How an ascension story like Amy’s typically goes is, she is the daughter of a well-to-do medical family who followed in her dad’s footsteps. Through political connections and donations, she arrived in Columbus and got appointment after appointment until someone who was connected pushed her in front of DeWine.
Right? Well, not this story.
Amy’s story is Youngstown:
Abused, abandoned, neglected, working a gig life before there was a name for it, figuring it out on her own and making up rules as she needed to. She did this not just for her, but also for her younger brother. And it started at age 3.
“My parents met at a theater party for YSU and got pregnant unexpectedly . . . ” is how Amy starts. It does not get better for a long, long time.
It was the 1960s. Her mom was an artist; dad talked mom into marriage; a younger brother came in; and then came divorce when Amy was 3.
“It got out of control. Custody [back then] always went to the mom. My dad tried to get custody of us,” she said.
“Out of control” meant 18 or so homes in her first 12 years scattered around the North Side – mom, brother, Amy and many, many pets. One place literally was a basement – bare walls, sump pump, boxes and a bed.
More troublesome than the nomadic lifestyle were the men in mom’s life. Amy calls them a “cast of characters.”
At one point in childhood, they moved to California. Mom got into a fight with whoever was the man at that time. So they traveled back home. They got as far as Nebraska. Mom got a job to earn money; she met a guy; she put her kids – age 8 and 5 – on a bus alone back to here to live with relatives. Three months later, mom, too, was home, and the cycle continued.
“I have so many crazy stories. … I spent so much time being scared as a kid, but also navigating the adult world,” Amy said.
One guy finally hung around for marriage. That’s when Amy’s life got worse. She was between age 9 and 12.
The guy had accusations of molestation events in his past, she said. With his abuse of Amy, there was finally enough evidence that officials were called in and criminal charges were filed.
It was winter, and the family was living in a tent in a campground outside Youngstown.
“I was lucky that it got bad enough, because it got me out of there.”
She was finally able to move in with her dad and his relatives. Her Liberty life kicked in, and it would be a better life. Money was always tight, but they were safe and there was food. She eventually would become Liberty homecoming queen – Class of 1984.
But no one ever knew her story.
“It’s hard to tell people about this because it makes kids uncomfortable,” she said about her younger years. “So you just keep it all in.”
She’s more at ease talking about it as an adult, but the tears still come as if it were yesterday.
Her dad, Jerry, died a few years ago. Her brother lives in Colorado.
She hasn’t seen or heard from her mom since a day in court after that long-ago arrest.
“In the courthouse after they were charged, I went to give her a kiss, and she just turned her cheek away. That was the last time I ever saw her.”
Out on bond, mom and her husband skipped town and have not been heard from since.
Amy’s medical interest grew from a hospital visit as a child. She wanted to be nice and nurturing like the staff. In that dank North Side basement, she heard on radio about a medical school attached to Youngstown State University. It became her obsession.
“My dad always told me I could be in life whatever I wanted to be.”
And now with the state of Ohio’s health as her job description, she is set to go. With Youngstown first, she said.
DeWine visited The Vindicator newsroom one last time Thursday. On his way out, I asked him about his hire – Dr. Acton.
He looked up through his blue-framed glasses and offered this with a wry smile:
“She’s special, isn’t she?”
Amy’s tale is likely my last one as a daily newsroom editor – which I’ve been since 1989. I wanted to end with a story like Amy’s.
I got into journalism by fluke but learned the game quickly. Journalism has plenty of fascinating and compelling components to serve every living soul in a community – if they give it a chance. More people gave journalism a chance when our grandparents and great-grandparents ruled these streets.
Journalism is a facet of our First Amendment right to free speech. It’s what makes our country the greatest even in our worst moments.
The component of journalism I love most is the privilege to drop in on lives that have elevated themselves. I always believed if I did my job right, their story could possibly elevate others. That is how we’re here, after all – one generation elevating itself above the times and toils of the previous one.
A new job awaits me. I’ll have the privilege to help communities across America preserve this pivotal tool of journalism – perhaps to not lose what we are losing with this last Vindicator you are reading now.
To end this job with a tale like Amy’s is why I love my job.
“I could be in life whatever I want to be,” she was told. It’s been true for Amy. It’s true for others. It’s true for cities.
I’m glad God gave me the chance to have told Amy’s story.
And I’m glad he allowed me to have found Youngstown, Ohio.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Vindicator in Youngstown published its final edition on Aug. 31, 1919, ending an era that began with the paper’s founding 150 years ago.