Nurture or nature?
Both, affirm Dee Jeffers and Charles Mahan: Environmental influences and inherited genetics go hand in hand.
Just like the public health nurse and the obstetrician who between them have birthed thousands of babies and devoted their lives to improving the chances that they would grow up healthy.
For four decades, their careers dovetailed as the advocates gradually evolved from colleagues to companions, and on Aug. 14, to spouses, when they eloped to the Waldorf Astoria in Naples.
"It's the best of all things when you're friends first," Jeffers said, "and we've been friends for a long time."
Florida held the dismal rank of 49th in the nation in infant mortality when Dr. Mahan was recruited to the University of Florida in 1974.
That same year, said Jeffers, 65, she invited him to speak to a group of Palm Beach County childbirth educators. "Charlie is a hero in the field of maternal and child health."
He remembers her as a gracious and energetic host. She just remembers being in awe.
Their paths crossed many times after that first meeting, as Mahan crisscrossed the state serving on task forces, advisory committees and boards, amassing more than $50 million in grants. From 1988 to 1995, he served two governors, Bob Martinez and Lawton Chiles, as director of the state health department.
"Poor women didn't have access to prenatal care," said Mahan, 73. "There were terrible inequities in outcomes."
The couple took great delight this month when state officials reported a whopping 33 percent decline in infant deaths since 1990. Clearly, the prenatal screenings and other health care programs they helped make available made an impact.
In the mid '80s, Jeffers returned to her native Tampa with two sons and her soon-to-be-ex husband. Tampa General Hospital had hired her to run a nurse midwifery program and oversee Ruskin migrant childbirth and parenting programs. In 1988, TGH named her the first director of its Genesis Health Care Center, assisting Medicaid-eligible patients.
During that time, she earned a master's degree in public health from the University of South Florida.
Mutual respect brought the pair together again in 1990 when the legislature established Florida Healthy Start, authorizing 30-plus community coalitions to improve maternal and infant health services. On Mahan's recommendation, Jeffers was tapped to develop the statewide program headquartered at USF.
But another woman was responsible for luring him to Tampa. In 1995, USF president Betty Castor named Mahan dean of the College of Public Health. One of his first projects with Jeffers was creating the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies.
Soon after that move, Mahan recalled, his wife, Carolyn, "wasn't her usual capable, organized self." At age 64, the former high school teacher was diagnosed with early dementia. Their son, John, moved in to help care for her at home as long as possible. Carolyn Mahan died in June 2011 at age 72.
"He never stopped being there for her,'' Jeffers said, adding, "His loyalty, optimism, kindness and humor are what I love, everybody loves, about Charlie."
During those difficult years, the colleagues often found themselves seated at the "singles" table at dinner parties and charity events. They discovered many shared interests, beyond health care, such as their political views, Gator and Bulls football and comedy, especially Steve Martin.
Jeffers accepted Mahan's invitation to visit his vacation home in Waynesville, N.C., "after he told his three adult children," she stipulated.
"He cried, he was so happy at their response.'' Having seen their father step down as dean after a heart attack in 2002, they appreciate the link between physical health and happiness. "We worried about him being alone in the mountains," said daughter Amy Mahan Tamargo.
On a blustery Valentine's Day in Clearwater Beach, Mahan asked Jeffers to marry him.
"The idea was to propose on the beach, but it was 40 degrees with gale force winds," he said. They settled for a hotel balcony, with tourists from Ireland looking on, snapping their picture.
The couple enjoy renovating and decorating their home in Temple Terrace, which, until a few years ago, was filled with Mahan's collection of 500 political cartoons and more than a thousand Disney animation cels, appraised at about $800,000.
"I bought my first when I was 12 for $50 with my lawn mowing earnings," he said. In 2006, he donated the Mahan Collection of American Humor and Cartoon Art to USF's Special and Digital Collections Library in Tampa. Nearly 60 editorial cartoons from the collection are on display through Sept. 16 at the Tampa Museum of Art.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.