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OEO's Kathy Odenwald Retires to a "Life without Musts"

By Eddy Ball
January 2007

Kathey Odenwald
Odenwald has been practicing for her new life without obligations. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Odenwald)

Kathy Odenwald
Odenwald welcomed guests to the OEO office for her retirement reception. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ivanoff and Odenwald
Ivanoff watched as Odenwald opened a gift from friends and associates. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On December 15, Kathy Odenwald's many friends and colleagues celebrated her 23-year career in federal service and her retirement from her position as liaison of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management. After 11 years of being someone her NIEHS colleagues and clients could always depend on and compiling an impressive list of career accomplishments, Odenwald looks forward to January 2007 when she will start a completely new phase in her life.

Odenwald has plans to travel to see her family in her native Taiwan and her children on the east and west coasts, but otherwise life after retirement will be truly open-ended. "I've loved my job, but now I just want a chance to do whatever I feel like doing," she explained. "I want my new life to be a 'life without musts.'" After a seamless transition/reorganization over the past two years, the program has found its direction under Odenwald, and she feels "that now is the time for me to go and play."

After completing her master's degree in human relations from the University of Northern Colorado, Odenwald entered federal service in 1983 as a GS-9 Equal Employment Opportunity Manager for a small military community in Germany. As an immigrant who had struggled herself with new languages and cultural conventions, she knew how it felt to be outside of the mainstream, often misunderstood and unsure about what people in different cultures expected of her.

Her experiences helped her empathize with the needs of people in similar situations. In this spirit, Odenwald and her colleagues developed a distinctly NIEHS kind of program that has been consistently successful in meeting the needs of the Institute's employees with educational opportunities, such as the recent seminar on "Impressionism," specialized training, cultural awareness for post doctoral fellows, scientific seminars and cultural activities.

When Odenwald oversaw the establishment of the NIEHS Diversity Council in 1998, she was committed to having the council reflect the same ratio of ethnicity, pay grades, occupational fields and gender as the workforce as a whole. Rather than making the council an insulated group with special interest agendas, Odenwald wanted the members to experience the spirit of inclusiveness every time they met and in every event they organized.

Odenwald's strengths as a leader included her abiding respect for employees and her emphasis on working for change by emphasizing the positive over the adversarial. As an OEO professional, she is highly trained and competent in helping clients understand the complaint and grievance processes when necessary to get fair treatment. But her greater love is educating people, helping them to understand their similarities and differences, as well as learn to value the unique experiences and qualities of their colleagues.

Characteristically modest and admittedly low-key, Odenwald attributes the success and quality of the OEO/Diversity program at NIEHS to the institute's geographical distance from Bethesda and the level of support she has enjoyed from upper management. "Our events are probably the best attended of all the ones at NIH," she noted, "and they also attract a healthy mix of people - not just ones from the group the event is celebrating."

People who have worked with Odenwald know that geography and management support alone cannot fully explain the program's successes. "Kathy has a golden touch and a special concern for the cultural diversity of our post docs, who represent some 30 countries," said colleague EEO Specialist Ginny Ivanoff. "I consider myself very lucky to have had her as a mentor, a colleague and a friend. She has taught all of us a lot about diversity, and we'll all miss having her there to turn to for support."

Former Director Ken Olden, Ph.D., shares Ivanoff's regard for her supervisor. "Kathy was one of the best appointments that I made during my tenure as director," he said. "Kathy possessed the right combination of professional knowledge, human skills and compassion to emerge as one of the most effective OEO officials in the NIH. I wish Kathy the best of everything and hope to see her often in the years ahead."

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