Mark Bennett: Dr. Janie Myers first African American woman elected to countywide office in Vigo

Dr. Janie Myers

Firsts are part of Dr. Janie Myers' family history.

A story in last December's Augusta University magazine illuminates her backstory. It includes a photograph of two smiling young students — the latest recipients of the McRae-Orrington Scholarships. The awards are given annually to help two aspiring dentists at the university's Dental College of Georgia.

James Orrington and classmate Matthew McRae launched the scholarships in 1994. They were the first African Americans admitted to the dental college nearly a half-century ago. Both men graduated and entered successful careers in dentistry. The magazine story explains the two alums "made it their mission to ease the journey for those who follow in their footsteps."

In the story, Orrington says, "I have to smile because it wasn't easy."

Orrington is Dr. Janie Myers' father.

Last week, she was elected Vigo County coroner, becoming the first African American woman elected to a countywide office here, according to research by Terre Haute historian Crystal Reynolds.

Myers' election "is significant for many reasons," Reynolds said. Several African American men have been elected to city of Terre Haute, county and state offices, beginning with Dr. Iverson Bell, who served five terms on the Vigo County School Board from the 1960s into the 1980s. Myers is now the first Black woman elected at such a level here.

"I'm honored, first to have won with the support of lots of people," Myers said Wednesday. "But I'm also honored to be the first [African American female county officeholder] and honored to provide a benefit to the county."

While Republicans swept most countywide offices in the Nov. 3 election, Myers won the coroner's seat as a Democrat. In her first run for public office, the Terre Haute Regional Hospital surgeon received 21,121 votes, edging Terre Haute city police officer Ted Lemke by 183 votes.

Incumbent coroner, Dr. Susan Amos, and her predecessor, Dr. Roland Kor, had alternately served in that office for the past 32 years. On Wednesday, Amos expressed confidence in Myers and that the office "will be in excellent hands."

Myers was born 48 years ago in Augusta, Georgia. Her parents, James and Mary Orrington, moved the family to the Chicago suburbs and opened a dentistry practice in the Windy City. While Myers' father is now retired, her brother practices dentistry in Chicago. Their parents were among the first in their own families to earn college degrees — James at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the Dental College of Georgia, and Mary at Albany State University in Georgia.

"They wanted something for themselves, and they worked toward it," Myers said. "Those are the values they've instilled in me — work hard and just try."

Myers received degrees and medical training at Spelman College in Atlanta and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and did residencies at Loyola University Medical Center and Midwestern University/St. James in Chicago, followed by a fellowship at St. Joseph Hospital in Tacoma, Wash.

After living on both coasts and Beaver Dam, Wisconsin — population 16,000 — Myers and her fiance sought "a little bigger town with that Midwestern feel." Her fiance's job offer led them to Terre Haute. In early 2019, Myers joined the staff at Regional Hospital, specializing in breast diseases and conditions. She also serves as chair for general surgery and the board of governors with the American College of Osteopathic Surgeons — the first African American woman to do so.

One title she wears is extra special — mother to her 8-year-old son. "To him, I'm just 'Mommy,'" Myers said, "and I'm totally fine with that."

As for her upcoming role as coroner, the duties that accompany that title may be misunderstood by the general public. 

"Probably 80% of people think the coroners do the autopsies," Myers said. Forensic pathologists must perform autopsies. (A coroner who's also a pathologist can perform autopsies.)

Coroners identify a deceased person and determine the cause and manner of death, according to the Indiana State Coroner Training Board. Accurately recording those findings on a death certificate and communicating that document to vital records outlets are crucial duties of a coroner, Myers said. The results affect a gamut of services, from Social Security and insurance benefits to pensions, titles and the federal census.

She's anxious to take on that responsibility. An upcoming meeting with the current deputy coroners will help that team get the office "off and running" in the new year.

Myers' election coincides with the breaking of another electoral glass ceiling on the national level. Sen. Kamala Harris is now vice president-elect, alongside president-elect Joe Biden, making Harris the first woman, the first Black and South Asian woman, and the first daughter of immigrants to fill that role. Likewise, Myers has an opportunity to be a role model in the Vigo County community.

"It is a great honor to be able to provide that for people on a local level," Myers said.

Her election can "show other people that if you want to do something, try," she said. "Don't be discouraged if you haven't seen someone like you in that role."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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