Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series featuring 2006 winners
of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. The late Massey of Durham
created the awards in 1980 to recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior
contributions” by University employees. The award is supported by the
Massey-Weatherspoon Fund created by three generations of Massey and
Weatherspoon families. Chancellor James Moeser selected the honorees from
nominations submitted by the campus. They each received an award citation and
Ray Hackney was never a straight “A” student like his sister
was, but he was always a good enough student to believe in himself and convince
his parents that he would be a doctor someday.
He sold himself on this respectable idea at the tender age
of 7, when other boys were still stuck on more fanciful notions of becoming
cowboys or firemen or astronauts.
Hackney grew up in Gastonia, a mill town of some 50,000 in
His father was a claims agent for a freight company; his
mother, a fourth-grade teacher.
It was not until he was pursuing a chemistry degree at
Carolina, with one leg almost in the medical school’s door, that Hackney
confronted the terrible truth. “I realized late in my college career that I
didn’t have a passion for being a doctor, that it really wasn’t what I wanted
to do,” Hackney said.
For the first time since second grade, Hackney didn’t know
what he was going to do with his life, just as he was about to graduate from
college in spring of 1972 and should have been embarking on his career.
He ended up talking to a chemistry professor to find out
what exactly a person can do with a chemistry degree besides study medicine.
The professor ran down the list and on it was public health.
Chemistry, the professor told him, is a great background for public health.
That meeting, Hackney can see now, was thefirst step on his
journey to discovering his true passion.
‘Quest for high-quality results'
Hackney went on to earn a master of science in environmental
sciences and engineering from Carolina in 1976, and a Ph.D. in parasitology and
laboratory practice in 1989. While earning his master’s degree, Hackney took a
job at the environment, health and safety office. It was the beginning of a
27-year career at Carolina that would earn him a 2006 C. Knox Massey Distinguished
As the University’s biological safety officer and industrial
hygiene manager in the Department of Environment, Health and Safety (EHS),
Hackney decodes complex federal and state regulations originating from multiple
agencies, departments and levels of government. As one co-worker said in
nominating him for the award, “He saved us all” when the Occupational Health
and Safety Administration extended its workplace rules to university
Nancy L. Davis, a research professor in microbiology and
immunology, said her interaction with Hackney centers around her basic research
“In the last couple of years, during which our virus was
classified as a Select Agent and the regulatory landscape changed dramatically,
Ray’s expertise has become even more important,” Davis said.
Peter Reinhardt, director of EHS, credits Hackney with developing the University’s laboratory
safety plan that has become a key tool for administrators, scientists and
regulators to ensure safety and compliance. Labs that meet or exceed
containment, ventilation and security standards ensure that Carolina will
continue to receive the millions of dollars that sponsor research into AIDS,
tuberculosis, SARS, bioterrorism, blood-borne pathogens, vaccine development
and third-world public health.
Hackney manages eight staff members who, in October of 2001,
responded to dozens of suspicious letters during the national anthrax scare. In
2003, when a contract employee was found to have SARS, Hackney helped the State
Division of Public Health trace the contacts of two persons of special
interest. Hackney also has served as an adjunct faculty member in the
Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, mentors graduate students
interested in occupational hygiene, participates on their master’s committees
and presents at national conferences.
“These achievements are the results of long hours of hard
work and attention to detail,” Reinhardt said. “He is unselfish and
self-motivated in his quest for high quality results. It shows.”
The passion still burns
After graduating from Carolina in 1972, Hackney sent letters
to 100 county health departments in North Carolina. He got a nibble from the
New Hanover County office in Wilmington. He would spend the next two years
inspecting everything from septic tanks to swimming pools. Hackney remembers
the feeling of authority and purpose he felt when he stood up to a restaurant
owner who had hidden the “B” grade Hackney gave the restaurant behind a book
shelf. Hackney told the man to move it where people could see it, which was the
whole point of the inspections.
Hackney had stumbled upon his passion. But it wasn’t until
he returned to Carolina to pursue his master’s in public health — and a federal
scholarship he had been counting on fell through — that he found his place when
he applied for a half-time job in the University’s environment, health and
It so happened that Hackney began working in that office in
the fall of 1974, just a few months after it was officially established to
organize the University’s safety responsibilities and respond to new
occupational safety and health laws. Hackney, for instance, was directly
responsible for, or heavily involved in, the University’s response to
requirements for abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint; hazard
communication for employees; laboratory chemical hygiene; formaldehyde
exposure; and pesticide exposure. More than three decades later, he is still at
it, doing the work he loves.
“As I’ve grown,
the job has grown with me and that is one of the great things about my job that
I love,” Hackney said. “The challenges never end.”
And that chemistry degree, he is happy to report, came in
handy after all.