Elkhart County anti-smoking advocate stepping down, but not quitting

After 12 years of warning residents about the dangers of smoking, Mark Potuck, head of Tobacco Control of Elkhart County, will be stepping down.
Posted on April 30, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.

ELKHART — He kicked things off with a song.

“But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re going to die. You’ve got to get up and try, try, try,” sang Mark Potuck, Elkhart County’s resident anti-smoking authority.

“Is that Adele?” asked one student.

“That’s Pink,” said another.

The ditty, “Try,” is indeed a Pink song, and Potuck later said he made the unconventional selection as an ice breaker, to connect with the audience, a Memorial High School health class. It’s not every day you see a 68-year-old, bow tie-wearing grandpa sing the pop singer’s music.

Then again, Potuck isn’t your average anti-smoking advocate. He’s made a career of taking unconventional approaches — he later rapped an anti-smoking song for the Memorial students — but that soon comes to an end, at least as director of the Elkhart County Health Department’s anti-smoking office.

After 12 years as head of Tobacco Control of Elkhart County and 24 years with the county health department he’ll be stepping down, effective June 30.

Potuck doesn’t want to call it quits altogether, but he’ll no longer be the health department’s official anti-smoking spokesman.

“I don’t think I’m really ready to stop doing what I’m doing,” he said.

But his vision of what the Tobacco Control office should be doing differs from the view of officials at the state office, the Indiana Department of Health’s Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Commission. State advocates, who make the major calls, are more about directing smokers to the statewide toll-free help line, while Potuck’s all about hands-on action — anti-smoking presentations, one-on-one cessation counseling.

Plus, state funding going to offices like Tobacco Control is likely to take a big hit per the new state budget for 2014 and 2015, according to Potuck and others.

“It’s real mixed feelings,” Potuck said.

School shtick

If you went to public school in Elkhart chances are you’ve seen Potuck’s shtick. Adopting personas like Polish cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Stosh Dubshanofski and Italian-American auto mechanic Tony Silliano, he’s given presentations about the dangers of smoking to grade school, middle school and high school students for years.

He’s also offered smoking cessation classes at Elkhart County companies and been vocal in calling for laws prohibiting cigarette use in the workplace.

Sure, he has heartrending stories of smoking-related deaths and shocking photos of tobacco victims to get his points across, but he also uses funny accents and humor. “It’s something different and it catches people’s attention and usually keeps their attention. Anything different,” Potuck said.

With the Memorial group, he offered a rap — “Emphysema and heart disease, smoking can do it, it’ll give it with ease,” it went, in part — generating delight from at least some of the students.

“That’s good! I love it!” said one.

“Get that on iTunes,” said another.

Darlene Owings, a Memorial health teacher whose class has been visited by Potuck over the years, figures “thousands” of kids have heard his message, easily. She refers to him as Stosh, his physician alter ego.

“The mix of presentation styles that he uses with voices, songs (and) videos provides something for just about any learning style,” Owings said in an email. “At the end of classes there are almost always kids who want to share stories or ask for more information from Stosh, which speaks to the effectiveness of his program.”

Getting here

Potuck, originally from the Rochester, N.Y., area, came to Elkhart County in 1977 to work as health education director for the county health department, a post he held until 1989. “In many ways, he’s the George Washington of health education here in Elkhart County,” said John Hulewicz, who now holds the post.

A 12-year stint followed as a speaker on health and other matters, first with a business partner and then on his own. Then in 2001, he took the post as anti-smoking advocate. Smoking having factored in the death of his parents, he came to the view that it was a natural fit.

“I tell the kids how I wish I could have had a song to sing them to get them to quit,” Potuck said.

Even now, as his last day with the Elkhart County Health Department approaches, he wants to keep sharing the message. He’s looking into other job opportunities and wants to keep it up another 10 years, perhaps. And as he talks, it always gets back to the dangers of lighting up and the benefits, if you smoke, of quitting.

“If you stop smoking, that’s going to have such an immensely positive effect on your well-being,” he said.

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