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Sharon Holston - Administrative Leadership in Vital Agency Initiatives

Sharon Holston (245px)When Sharon Smith Holston retired as Deputy Commissioner for International and Constituent Relations in 2001, she left a rich legacy of administrative service to the Food and Drug Administration. After completing a French major from Barnard College in New York City, she decided that even graduate work in the field was “not going to prepare her for much of anything.” She came to Washington D.C. in 1967 to work for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights where she soon became a personnel management specialist. When the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (DHEW) was given responsibility for implementing President Nixon’s ambitious welfare reform program she was hired into DHEW in 1972. 

Her staff was soon disbanded, however, when enabling legislation failed to materialize. Sharon applied for a new position at FDA and became the agency’s first equal employment officer for the Office of the Commissioner. She recalls that one of her first challenges was to address the “awful working conditions” in the basement of FDA’s FOB-8 building on “C” Street downtown. It was warehouse space, co-located with an auto maintenance operation, and fumes posed a health concern to the workers, most of whom were low-graded minority workers.  She recalls her most difficult issues as an EEO officer involved “trying to sort out what was going on and what was fair and what was not fair.” At one point, she disciplined one manager for discriminatory practices while promoting a long time minority employee anxious to demonstrate he could “do more than he was being allowed to do.”

Experience in pulling together the five computer centers in Rockville’s Parklawn Building to create a single Parklawn Computer Center soon led her into general administration work. Under FDA’s long-term training program, she gained a master’s degree in Public Administration at the Harvard School of Government. Upon her return to FDA, she rose to the position of Associate Commissioner for Management and Operations (titles changed periodically) where she established the 1811 series for FDA’s new criminal investigators; implemented new regulations stemming from the generic drug scandal; presided over stressful interactions with GAO; implemented the first agency user fee programs (PDUFA); and worked to secure support for a new consolidated FDA campus at White Oak, among other accomplishments.

Commissioner David Kessler recruited her for the position of Deputy Commissioner of External Affairs in 1994, the position from which she retired. A critical insight and concern soon became the fact that international work, particularly in issues related to trade barriers, had become a “critical component” of the agency’s work. Under Jane Henney, she created a separate and consolidated Office of International Programs. Sharon was a tireless mentor who always advised mentees to “work hard and be self-critical,” and “look to people you respect for advice and guidance.” In the end, however, “remember that you’re the one who has to demonstrate what you can do.”