For someone who professes to be a people person, it may seem a bit odd that Dr. Ron Morford has spent a good chunk of his career dealing with some real stiffs.
After several years working as an emergency room physician in multiple Wichita hospitals, it was a chance encounter when he first started working in Newton that led him to become the Harvey County coroner — a position he has filled for nearly three decades.
"I had just started working in the emergency room in Newton. One night, I think one of the police officers was in there; he said, 'well, the coroner's not gonna do it anymore and it looks like maybe we're gonna have to have a chiropractor do the coroner's work,'" Morford said. "... I said, 'well, gee, I might be interested in doing it if they'd be interested in having me.'"
Now, after 28 years serving as coroner for Harvey and McPherson counties, Morford is officially retired (as of June 1) — leaving behind a long body of work.
Several state statutes dictated what Morford's caseload was like as county coroner — requiring him to sign off on all accidental deaths, perform an autopsy on any individuals who die in prison or police custody, etc. He admitted it was busier when he first started, with only a couple of death investigators to help him out, but even so he still had a steady flow of cases towards the end of his tenure — and a system for handling each and determining how involved he would be in the investigation.
"My personal rule is that every time we have a case that a death investigator either has to take a call on or has to go out to the scene, they must call me and we've gotta talk it over before we decide what we're gonna do," Morford said. "A moderate number of deaths, I go to the scenes of."
Before taking the position as coroner for Harvey and McPherson counties, Morford said he flirted with running for a similar elected office in Sedgwick County, but even so he never imagined he would remain in this line of work for 30 years.
Part of what drew Morford to the role of county coroner was an interest in solving puzzles and understanding causes of death — what happened to these people. Finding answers, as best he could, is something he admitted drove him in his 28 years in the field.
"Sometimes you really have no idea what they died from, and you don't know even after an autopsy, but you do the best you can from their medical history and from the circumstances," Morford said. "I'm really a believer in you want to know the truth and don't try to cover the truth up, and don't avoid the truth just because it's inconvenient."
On top of working to suss out some tricky cases, Morford admitted that part of what kept him going was the opportunity to join forces with local law enforcement — an opportunity he relished, even in the midst of some truly "nasty" cases.
There are those cases that have stuck with Morford, he said, like such instances where cause of death has been determined, but other obstacles have not allowed for further action. While those are haunting experiences, what he said will stick with him the most is the people he has helped — the family members he has been their for on some of their darkest days.
"It was always painful, but I really was comfortable trying to encourage family of someone who died and talking to those people," Morford said. "It was really difficult at times, but they needed that and I was glad to do that."
Transitioning into retirement is not something Morford expects to be too hard, as it simply means he will be on his farm in Greenwood County full-time rather than doing so while juggling his duties as county coroner.
Looking back, Morford stated his belief that he had the right temperament for the job. While it's hard to think about being proud in his line of work as coroner, he admitted he is glad to have been able to leave the family members of those whose deaths he is investigating with some advice that resonates.
One case in particular was that of a woman who Morford worked with at the hospital. After investigating her husband's death, he encouraged her — as he had done with many others — to "always focus on the good." Six months later, it was clear that message had sunk in as she approached him and gave him a hug, thanking him for his advice — an experience that resonated with Morford.
"When they're crying and sad, you don't even know if they hear anything you say," Morford said. "Things like that, to me, are really special."