James “Jim” Ongley, MD ’77, may run a crime lab, but don’t think for a moment that his work mirrors that of Hollywood’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” or “NCIS.”
“I do not drive a hummer,” Ongley said with a laugh. “We cannot put a piece of blood into a machine and an overhead projection reveals a satellite image of where the person is. It’s precise, rigorous and verified work.”Ongley, the director of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office crime lab in Ft. Lauderdale, first discovered his aptitude for law and medicine during a fellowship with the medical examiner’s office, but his career path began with a move to sunny Florida.
Ongley moved from his hometown of Rochester, Minn., where his father was a physician at the Mayo Clinic, to Gainesville to attend college. After earning his bachelor’s degree in zoology, he knew he was headed to medical school.
“It wasn’t an expectation, but I never really thought about anything else,” he said.
After graduating from the UF College of Medicine, Ongley was unsure about his future.
“I went to medical school and was exposed to all sorts of different ideas,” Ongley said. “When everybody starts off, they want to be a doctor because they want to save everybody. You don’t know until you’re in school and see what really excites you and doesn’t excite you.”
Ongley soon discovered it was pathology — specifically pathophysiology — that excited him. His interest led to a residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he took a turn into neuropathology.
“I became very fascinated with how people died,” Ongley said, noting his interest guided him to a fellowship with a medical examiner.
“It was such a bizarre world that I’d never been exposed to and never imagined, especially growing up in Minnesota where there was no crime,” he said. “It was fascinating.”
Ongley worked as an assistant medical examiner for Broward and Dade Counties, as well as the University of Miami School of Medicine.
During that time, the legal system caught Ongley’s attention, and he attended Nova Southeastern University College of Law from 1986 to1989. Ongley began to teach as an adjunct professor at Nova in 1992, and continues today.
“I was very interested in the system and how the process works,” he said. “I went to law school, not with the intention of ever practicing law, but to learn how we fit into the system.”
In 1990, he was offered a position as an assistant public defender in Broward County. Over time, Ongley progressed in his legal career to take on death penalty cases. Even though he doesn’t pride himself on his public-speaking abilities, Ongley immediately found his niche as a trial attorney.
“I figured, ‘I can do three years and see if I like it, of course I can always go back,’” he said. “I got in the courtroom, and I just loved being in the courtroom.”
Then, in 2004, he heard news that changed his career path, yet again.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office crime lab chief was retiring, and Ongley decided to apply for the job. Ten years later, Ongley oversees 44 lab workers and maintains the crime lab’s standards of accreditation.
“I started working at the crime lab, which put all of my different skills together,” he said.
The father of three and grandfather of four plans to retire to the Orlando area with his wife, Bettie “Linda” Ongley, DMD ’76, who was the first woman to graduate from UF’s College of Dentistry. With a self-professed “type-A” personality, however, Ongley does not believe he truly will retire.
“Life’s too short to do something you don’t enjoy. You need to start enjoying life now. Do something that interests you,” he said. “Every job I’ve had, I’ve been very lucky that the excitement outweighs the boredom.”