The Legacy of Dr. Harold W. (Bill) Kohl III From the Perspective of His Mentees

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Gregory Knell Department of Population & Community Health, School of Public Health, The University of North Texas Health Science Center, Fort Worth, TX, USA

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Kathryn Burford Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York, NY, USA

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Tammy Calise Health Services Department, JSI Research & Training Institute, Boston, MA, USA

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Erin E. Dooley Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA

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Augusto Ferreira de Moraes Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Austin, TX, USA

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Leigh Ann Ganzar Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, School of Public Health, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Austin, TX, USA

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Ho Han Community Health Sciences, Counseling & Counseling Psychology, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK, USA

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Natalia Heredia Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, School of Public Health, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Houston, TX, USA

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Alejandra Jáuregui Department of Physical Activity and Healthy Lifestyles, Center for Nutrition and Health Research, Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública, Cuernavaca, Mexico

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Ashleigh Johnson School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, College of Health and Human Services, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, USA

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Kevin Lanza Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, School of Public Health, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Austin, TX, USA

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Eileen Nehme School of Nursing, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

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Hildi Nicksic Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, College of Education, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, USA

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Abiodun O. Oluyomi Section of Epidemiology and Population Sciences, Department of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX, USA

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Anna Porter Department of Biostatistics, Center for Methods in Implementation and Prevention Science, Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, CT, USA

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Andrea Ramirez Varela Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Austin, TX, USA

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Michael Robertson Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, OK, USA

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Deborah Salvo People, Health & Place Lab, Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

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Timothy Walker Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, School of Public Health, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Houston, TX, USA

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Yuzi Zhang Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, School of Public Health, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Houston, TX, USA

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Free access

Dr. Harold W. (Bill) Kohl III left an indelible impact on the field of physical activity and public health. One of the stalwarts in the field, Bill’s seminal works included the first study to connect physical fitness with all-cause mortality,1 and his 2012 paper in The Lancet, in which he championed the need to address physical inactivity as a pandemic, and therefore, as a matter of global public health concern.2

However, Bill’s most enduring impact may be his commitment to building capacity within the field through mentorship, which was grounded in generosity, respect, high expectations, empathy, and humor. He fostered an environment of growth, collaboration, and mutual support. Drawing on his experiences at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bill encouraged us, his mentees, to never lose sight of the larger vision and context of physical activity and its role within public health.

In 2007, soon after joining the faculty at the Austin campus of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston’s School of Public Health, Bill began convening his mentees for a weekly meeting that became known as the Physical Activity Workgroup. Meetings began with personal updates, paying special attention to upcoming nuptials, birth announcements (with encouragement to name the newborn Harold or Haroldine), and individual accolades. Bill knew the power of moments, never missing a chance to instill confidence by shining a light on mentees’ accomplishments in front of others. Often, this left little time to discuss the latest science in physical activity and public health research, but this didn’t matter to Bill as he believed that people and relationships mattered most. The workgroup eventually grew into the Texas Physical Activity Research Collaborative, a space for feedback, presentation practice, ideation, and scholarly debate. The partnerships and friendships that have formed out of this meeting created by Bill, as a way to support his mentees, may never fully be realized as his mentee network tree continues to grow and build capacity in physical activity and public health.

Bill’s mentoring footprint can be found well beyond Texas and the United States. One of his most passionate directives as a scholar was to inspire and support young physical activity researchers from across the world. He was keenly aware of the gap in physical activity research capacity and opportunities between high- versus low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), and devoted significant time, effort, and funds in mentoring international scholars. An epidemiologist at heart (and by training), Bill always reminded us that “if it matters, we must measure it!” He walked the talk, serving as a founding member for the Global Observatory for Physical Activity (GoPA!), a worldwide surveillance system of physical activity levels, research, and policies. Over the past decade, Bill mentored dozens of GoPA! researchers near and far.

Although Bill mentored people from many countries and regions, it is worth highlighting his impact in Latin America. While it is well-known that he founded the International Society of Physical Activity and Health (ISPAH), it is perhaps less known that he was an essential contributor to the formation, expansion, and strengthening of major regional groups, like the Pan-American Physical Activity Network (RAFA-PANA) and the Latin American Society of Physical Activity Research (SLIAFS). Bill was also instrumental in the deployment of the Physical Activity and Public Health (PAPH) course to Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Uruguay, and other countries, which touched the lives of hundreds of early career physical activity scholars and provided the foundations for an emergent field in Latin America. For many physical activity scholars in Latin America and worldwide, Bill’s advice and mentorship was transformational, and some of us feel that navigating our careers without his guidance would have been impossible. We believe Bill saw himself as a guardian for those who may have felt marginalized in physical activity and public health research, such as individuals from LMICs and women. In this role, Bill provided a sense of security, belonging, confidence, and accompaniment on the academic journey. Bill was affectionately nicknamed “OWO” (Oh Wise One) by some of his Latin American mentees, which he found “slightly embarrassing, but mostly endearing.”

There are many lessons that we have taken away from our time with Bill. Unquestionably, he ensured we understood the public health importance of physical activity promotion and challenged us to think critically and differently about how to address the physical inactivity pandemic. He had an uncanny ability to use humor to capture attention or to make a point. He could also put others at ease with a nice dose of self-effacing humor, like saying “I’m an epidemiologist ... I just count things.” He paid attention to the little—yet important—things, like the fact that “data” is plural (“THESE data”), that the term “rate” should be exclusively used for measures that include an element of time, and to “remember your denominator!” He also ensured we would not lose sight of the “big picture”—both in research and in life. He frequently reminded us that “your dissertation is not your life’s work” and challenged us to think about the broader implications of our research. Bill once told us that “there are many great starters [those who can initiate a project], but very few great closers,” and that we should aim to “be a closer.”

Many of Bill’s most important lessons were learned from the example he set. He showed us the importance of building genuine relationships, supporting each other, and forming collaborations. We learned from him the sum of our work can, and should be, greater than one individual’s contribution. He also showed us the importance of having fun, like the infamous occasion he took us on his “boat.” He celebrated diversity and provided a safe space for people to share their perspectives. While his loss to the field is monumental, we are truly privileged to have learned from one of the best and hope to be able to carry forward his legacy.

Bill’s commitment to capacity building through mentorship, global engagement, and leadership requires personal daily action to ensure continuity and impact. In articulating what made him a leader and transformative mentor, we have distilled some lessons learned. First, we must continually strive to develop and build relationships with students and mentees on a personal level. Each touchpoint is an opportunity to connect meaningfully. Second, don’t be afraid to use humor. Even if we do not all have Bill’s gift of humor, each of us can strive to take our work seriously while not taking ourselves too seriously. Third, no matter how busy we are, there should always be time for fun, and in-person conversations about life and crazy new ideas (preferably over beer). Fourth, although not all of us do research that takes us into international spaces, we should all carry on Bill’s deep sense of empathy and a responsibility towards equity. Fifth, it is not enough to start great projects—a spectacular closing is as, or more, important than a spectacular launch. Lastly, to continue moving the field forward, we must think differently and embrace continuous change, always remembering that “more of the same is not enough.”

Acknowledgments

We thank Dr. Geoffrey Whitfield (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for his contributions and insight as one of Bill’s first doctoral students and members of the original Physical Activity Workgroup. Bill would undoubtedly proclaim that his mentorship was shaped by the late Drs. Steven Blair and Ralph Paffenbarger, and others.

References

  • 1.

    Blair SN, Kohl HW III, Paffenbarger RS, et al. Physical fitness and all-cause mortality: a prospective study of healthy men and women. JAMA. 1989;262(17):23952401. doi:

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  • 2.

    Kohl HW III, Craig CL, Lambert EV, et al. The pandemic of physical inactivity: global action for public health. Lancet. 2012;380(9838):294305. doi:

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Knell (Gregory.Knell@unthsc.edu) is corresponding author.

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  • 1.

    Blair SN, Kohl HW III, Paffenbarger RS, et al. Physical fitness and all-cause mortality: a prospective study of healthy men and women. JAMA. 1989;262(17):23952401. doi:

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 2.

    Kohl HW III, Craig CL, Lambert EV, et al. The pandemic of physical inactivity: global action for public health. Lancet. 2012;380(9838):294305. doi:

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    • Export Citation
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