Notes from the road: Mountain People’s Health Councils

Mountain People’s headquarters, Oneida, Tenn., 2017

[Story contributed by Caryl Carpenter]

On October 23rd, 2017, a doctor, a lawyer, an archivist, and an old lady started out to make history, or more accurately, to record history – the history of Mountain People’s Health Councils (MPHC) in East Tennessee.  MPHC was founded in 1974 as a coalition of three rural health clinics in Norma (Scott County), Petros (Morgan County) and Stoney Fork (Campbell County).  Each clinic grew out of health fairs conducted by the Student Health Coalition (SHC) in 1972.

The doctor was the first National Health Services Corps physician at Mountain People’s from 1974-1976.  The lawyer was the organizer of the 1972 health fairs.  The old lady was the second administrator at MPHC.  And the archivist was from the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Library and the only person capable of keeping this motley crew focused on the mission of this adventure.  Let the three amigos and one amiga (Rick Davidson, Irwin Venick, Biff Hollingsworth, and Caryl Carpenter tell you about those three days in Tennessee in their own words:

Our adventure began with dinner at Dean’s in Oak Ridge with Mo O’Connell and Boomer Winfrey of SOCM fame, and Neil McBride of ETRC and Rural Legal Services – friends from those heady days in the late 70s.  We looked at a lot of old photos and laughed a lot.  Apparently, we were good at canoeing, camping, volleyball, and theme parties when not organizing and rabble rousing.  Regrettably, we did not make it to Boomer’s Coal Museum in (historical order) Coal Creek, Lake City, or Rocky Top, but we got to hear about it from Boomer.  (Next time!)

On Tuesday, en route to Scott County, we made a side trip to Pill Hill in Lake City (we refused to call it Rocky Top) to the former homes of Bill Dow, Rick Davidson, Kathy Bowman, Bob Hartmann, Pat Kalmans, and Kaye Bultemeier.  Nothing has changed except the occupants.

We spent all day Tuesday with James Lovett, CEO of Mountain People’s.  James was brought to the Norma health fair in 1972 as a 7-year-old.  How’s that for a full circle story?!  Mountain People’s has evolved into an amazing community health organization.  Although the clinics in Petros and Stoney Fork are closed, MPHC now has five sites in Scott County, including the original Norma clinic.  They have 50,000 patient visits a year and serve half the population of Scott County, providing primary care, dental, and behavioral health services.


Audio Icon Click to listen to audio of conversation with James Lovett, CEO of Mountain People’s


Rick Davidson, Caryl Carpenter, and Irwin Venick at the Norma Clinic

We followed the winding road up from the Howard Baker Highway to visit Norma, met the clinic staff, saw the renovated clinic, and attempted to find Caryl’s old office on the second floor of the Norma School, which now appears to be a warehouse.  Despite constant pestering from Irwin, we decided not to take the road from Norma through Smokey Junction to Stoney Fork since Rick and Caryl knew there really isn’t a road there (although we didn’t mention that to Dan Rostenkowski, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, when he was taken down the non-road to demonstrate the isolation of rural clinics).  We also traveled to the Highland Health Center in Elgin/Robbins, although it was closed by the time we got there.  It was great to learn that the site of another SHC health fair had become another successful clinic.

We had lunch with the MPHC staff in the Oneida clinic – imagine that, there is a large federally-qualified health center in Oneida.  We regaled the staff with stories of the early days of Mountain People’s.  There is still one staff member from those days – June Sharpe who was an outreach worker in Norma and now a billing specialist in the MPHC headquarters.  Caryl had a great time looking through photos from Norma with June. It was music to our ears to hear the staff talk about how proud they are of their quality scores.  They aspire to be one of the top 10 FQHCs in the country in terms of quality metrics.

Our day in Scott County was topped off with dinner at a MPHC board meeting.  James Walker of Robbins, the current board chair, remembers when Rick came to Mountain People’s as a young pup.  He noted that Rick didn’t have any more hair in 1974 than he does now.  Once again we shared stories of the health fairs, the founding of Mountain People’s, and our various battles with the Board of Pharmacy and the Board of Medicine.  Rick pointed out that we probably were breaking a lot of laws in those early years, but we also helped to change those laws.  It was great to see that Mountain People’s has continued to be involved with public policy through the Tennessee Primary Care Association (TPCA).  Jan Laxton, the long-time administrator at MPHC, and James Lovett both served as chair of TPCA.  Board members told us they are proud that no one will be turned away for lack of funds to pay for health care, and  that many people who have insurance or can afford to pay like to come to the MPHC clinics too.

Wednesday began with brunch at the home of Chuck Darling, a retired OB/GYN in Oak Ridge.  Chuck was a pioneer and risked the wrath of some of his physician colleagues by delivering most of the Mountain People’s babies who received their pre-natal and post-partum care at the clinics.  He was also an active supporter of Planned Parenthood in Oak Ridge.  Janie Hiserote (NP at Briceville, Petros, and Coalfield) and Kaye Bultemeier (NP at Stoney Fork and Jacksboro) and Chuck were interviewed about their experiences with Mountain People’s.  Like Chuck, Janie, and Kaye were pioneers, having graduated from two of the first NP programs in the country – Janie at Rochester and Kaye at Vanderbilt.  The interview with Janie, Kaye, and Chuck was inspiring, as they shared their insights about practicing in East Tennessee, starting in the 70s, and about how the health care system has changed in good and bad ways.


Audio Icon Click to listen to full audio of the discussion with Janie Hiserote, Kaye Bultemeier, and Chuck Darling 


A quick drive into Morgan County from Oak Ridge took us to the home of Kate and J.W. Bradley, the founders of the Petros Clinic who now live in Coalfield.  Once again we recorded great stories about the health fair and clinic in Petros, and the many roles that Kate and J.W. played to improve their community.  We even heard about the day James Earl Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain Prison in Petros, forcing the clinic staff to look in the crawl spaces every morning until he was caught.

The finale of our trip was a community supper in Coalfield, Morgan County, organized by Sheree McKamey Craig, the daughter of Odes and Shelby McKamey.  Odes was the key person who helped bring the SHC to Stoney Fork and served as the president of the Stoney Fork Health Council, and a member of the MPHC board.  Shelby was the receptionist at the clinic, and later worked for Dr. Darling in Oak Ridge.  Shelby, now in her 80s, was at the event and shared her memories of the clinic’s founding.  While Rick was at Mountain People’s, he played with a bluegrass band called the New River Boys.  The event in Coalfield was a reunion for Rick with some of the Boys.  We were entertained by some good picking (even from Rick) and some good food.

It’s safe to say this adventure of one doctor, one lawyer, one archivist, and one old lady recording the history of a Student Health Coalition legacy organization, Mountain People’s Health Councils, was amazing and memorable.  We recorded many great interviews that will soon become part of the SHC archive and website.  We highly recommend that other SHC alumni consider participating in a similar effort.

We also plan to write a Lessons Learned piece for the website that will summarize what we discovered about what it takes for a community health organization to develop from the SHC days to today.  We must extend a special thank you to Biff Hollingsworth.  His participation was invaluable.  Not only did Biff record all these events, he helped guide us as we conducted the interviews, asked  great questions, and filled in when the old lady forgot what she was talking about.  Thank you, Biff.  We all learned so much from you!


Audio Icon Click here to listen to a few songs from the New River Boys reunion