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Pioneer health educator Oliver E. Byrd dies

Dr. Oliver E. Byrd, a pioneer health educator and professor emeritus at Stanford, died May 16 in Palo Alto. He was 92.

Byrd, known as "Tex" to family and friends, was born in Little Rock, Ark., and surmounted the early death of his father and a subsequent childhood of poverty in Texas to earn a scholarship to Stanford University, where he received a B.A. degree in economics in 1929 under the name of Oliver E. Crandall, his stepfather's name. Later, he adopted his birth name of Byrd and went on to earn an M.A. in hygiene and physical education in 1933 and an Ed.D. in health education in 1940, also from Stanford. He remained devoted to the university all his life.

A high school and college athlete in track, basketball and baseball, he decided to become an educator after taking what was intended to be a one-year job in 1930 teaching fifth grade at a private boys' school in Los Angeles to help finance his graduate studies in business administration. He enjoyed teaching so much that he changed his major to earn his teaching credential and took a job in 1932 at the College of San Mateo (then called San Mateo Junior College) teaching biology and health and coaching the track team at a salary of $95 per month. In five years of coaching, members of his teams set 16 world junior college records and won conference and West Coast Relays championships.

In 1937, he returned to Stanford as an instructor and in 1938 was offered the head track coaching job at Stanford, but turned it down to concentrate instead on teaching and writing.

At the encouragement of Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, then president of Stanford, he decided to study medicine and received his M.D. degree from the University of California Medical School in 1947 at the age of 41, graduating with honors in surgery, psychiatry and public health. He was offered a surgery internship at the University of California Medical Center, but chose instead to return to Stanford and teaching. He was licensed to practice medicine and surgery in California for over 30 years.

He established the first Health Education Department at Stanford and was its head until his retirement from Stanford in 1971. However, he always said that the greatest achievement to result from his medical studies was to diagnose his young wife's cancer, which was operated on in time to allow them to spend a long and full life together.

He was the author or co-author of more than 80 books on health, school health programs and medical readings. He also pioneered the concept of adapting medical articles into lay language and making the readings available to individuals, schools and libraries through Medical Readings Inc., but was too far ahead of the computer revolution to see his idea achieve full fruition during his career.

He was a health education consultant to more than 100 school districts during his 40 years of teaching, as well as a consultant and instructor to the U.S. Treasury Department, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Social Security Administration, the Air Force Academy, and many private corporations, universities and colleges. He was a consultant and member of the Research Advisory Committee of the Lifetime Sports Educational Project of the National Education Association.

Listed in numerous Who's Who publications and lists of world education leaders, he was a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Fame, and a recipient of the Lyda M. Smiler Award for significant contributions to school nursing in 1964, the Distinguished Service Award of the American Medical Association in 1966, and the International Certificate of Merit for Distinguished Service to school Health and Health Education in 1968.

In 1971 he was commended by the California State Assembly for "outstanding and productive contributions to the field of public health and education and the betterment of our society."

In 1991, he was honored by Eta Sigma Gamma, the national professional health science honorary society, with the National Honor Award for "your long and illustrious record and your significant contributions to the field of health education and individual health educators."

Said the Eta Sigma Gamma citation: "You seemed to know, from your first elementary teaching experience, that the basic function of the teacher is to stimulate and even inspire students to want to learn. Your style and philosophy as a teacher was guided by the principle that each student has an untapped capacity for achievement and that the teacher, rather than to focus on the student's limitations, is to help the student realize his/her potential to the greatest extent possible."

He inspired many students over the years to enter the field of education. His students included his son, Thomas Byrd, now a health instructor and author at De Anza College in Cupertino, and his daughter, Beverly Byrd Loomis, a former elementary schoolteacher and now assessment center coordinator at Los Medanos Community College in Pittsburg.

Byrd enjoyed spending time with his family and devotedly followed Stanford sports and the San Francisco Giants.

Survivors include his wife of 67 years, Jennie Christine Sonnichsen Byrd of Palo Alto, who remained by his side on a daily basis during his final illness; his son, Thomas Byrd, and daughter-in-law, Kathi; his daughter, Beverly Byrd Loomis, and son-in-law, Robert; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private with entombment at Alta Mesa Cemetery in Palo Alto.

The family prefers contributions to the Stanford Fund (Scholarships for Undergraduate Students), Office of Development, Stanford University, 301 Encina Hall, Stanford, CA 94305-6076; or to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Attn. Anne Jigger, 400 Channing Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94301; or to Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, 488 W. Charleston Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306.


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