Awards Profile: Delton Atkinson ’74

Delton Atkinson ’74

2023 Beech Outstanding Alumni Award

Despite an illustrious career in public health and being recognized as the “first Black” person in various leadership positions, Delton Atkinson doesn’t see himself as a natural leader. “I’m a follower by nature and happy to be so,” said Atkinson, who retired in 2019 as director of the Division of Vital Statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “But when I need to lead, my aggressive nature comes to the forefront.”

Atkinson’s upbringing in Goldsboro made him aware of Black communities’ difficulties accessing health and economic resources. His mother never finished high school but was a driving force behind his success, encouraging him to pursue an education and set an example for his younger siblings. He took his mother’s advice and now counts among his accolades being a 2023 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni recipient.

Atkinson’s career in public health lasted more than 30 years, but working to improve the lives of others wasn’t his childhood dream. During his junior year at Carolina, he discovered his passion for community-based, equity issues and searched for a graduate program to help achieve his goals. With the assistance of the School of Public Health minority recruiter, he found his calling in the Department of Health Policy and Administration. “The principles of evidence-based decision-making, adapting to adversity and collaborating for the common good, particularly with vulnerable communities, resonated with me then and still do today,” Atkinson said. This realization set him on a path of remarkable career achievements, recognition and charitable work in public health. He became the first Black person to serve as director of the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics, and his groundbreaking research on health disparities was instrumental in establishing the first-ever Minority Health Advisory Council in the N.C. General Assembly.

Atkinson has received several awards for his contributions, including the Hal Dunn Lifelong Statistics Leadership Award, which recognizes accomplished professionals who have made outstanding contributions to vital and health statistics. “Delton represents all that the Outstanding Alumni award stands for — exceptional career success, stellar leadership molded by the Carolina experience and the uncompromised desire to help others succeed by giving back to Carolina and the community,” said John L. Johnson ’74, who nominated Atkinson for the award.

The desire to give back led Atkinson to become the first Black person chosen as president of the School of Public Health Foundation Board. “Delton was recognized for promoting student diversity within the School of Public Health,” said David Broaden ’77, who has known Atkinson for almost 50 years. “He has unselfishly dedicated himself to helping students at UNC fulfill their dreams.” Broaden said Atkinson’s commitment to serving Carolina and the community is captured in Ephesians 6:7-8: “Serve wholeheartedly as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”

Atkinson’s passion for helping others led him and his wife, Sherry, to establish in 2013 the Atkinson Endowed Scholarship Fund at UNC’s Gillings School of Public Health. It provides ongoing funding for minority students — each of whom they have met personally — pursuing public health careers.

Atkinson acknowledges the influence of those who taught, mentored, counseled, advised and supported him. “My achievements and receiving this award embody their collective efforts,” he said. “Assisting students in their education has been a labor of love, and I strongly believe in giving back to help others achieve their God-given goals.”

Early in his career, when he considered applying for the director’s position at the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics, Atkinson received valuable advice: pursue his goals without letting the fear of rejection hinder him. “I was hesitant about applying because even though I had the education and experience, getting the position would require me to jump two supervisory levels,” he said. “… I applied and was subsequently named director. That move significantly elevated my career, and the rest is history.”

— Cassandra P. Harper ’86