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Dean, dental leader lauded as consensus builder

Dr. Kalkwarf earns 2009 ADA Distinguished Service Award

Dr. Kenneth L. Kalkwarf, this year's recipient of the ADA Distinguished Service Award, had a difficult decision to make during his earliest days in dental education.

The choice was between an academic post that would keep him connected with his specialty of periodontology and an administrative post that could provide an opportunity to affect dental education in a broader sense.

"When the dean position opened at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio Dental School, I made the decision to move further away from my specialty," Dr. Kalkwarf said. "It was difficult to do, but I'm glad. I think I have more to offer at all levels of dental education.

"There are a lot of good people in periodontology," he said, and joked: "I'm not sure I could have added much to what they've done."

As it turns out, one of the primary benefactors of Dr. Kalkwarf's decision to pursue an administrative post appears to be the American Dental Association.

The dean of the UTHSC-SA Dental School and past president of the American Dental Education Association is being lauded as a leader and consensus builder whose contributions have brought diverse, and sometimes divergent, communities together for the betterment of the entire profession. Dr. Kalkwarf will receive the ADA Distinguished Service Award on Friday, Oct. 2, during the opening of the first meeting of the House of Delegates in Honolulu.

ADA President John S. Findley called him over the summer to share the news.

"When the initial shock wore off, I told John that I love doing everything I'm doing, so it's nice to hear some of the things I'm doing might have been important," said Dr. Kalkwarf.

"Ken has touched so many groups in our profession and been a link between the educational community and the profession, and young dentists and more established members. It's his collaborative spirit that really shines through," said Dr. Findley. "He's served on so many councils, committees and commissions. I daresay, I don't think anyone could match him in hours of service spent for the ADA."

"One thing I've always been happy with in regard to the ADA and its councils and commissions is that the process by which we reach a solution allows for adequate input," Dr. Kalkwarf said. "I think the ADA generally has created processes that have allowed the right decision to come out in the end."

Some of his ADA leadership roles include chair of the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (1998-99); chair of the ADA Commission on Dental Accreditation (2003-04); member of the oversight committee that developed the report on the Future of Dentistry (2000-01); and member of the Task Force on the Commission on Dental Accreditation (2007-08). He was president of ADEA in 2006-07.

More recently Dr. Kalkwarf was founding chair for ADEA's Commission on Change and Innovation in Dental Education, which was formed in 2005 to investigate systemic change to advance and sustain curricular reform. CCI, he said, created a forum for those interested in dental education and future members "to create better ways of assuring that graduates, and eventually all dentists, are lifelong learners providing evidence-based care to meet society's needs."

Besides his leadership roles, Dr. Kalkwarf demonstrates many attributes that make him an ideal candidate for the ADA award.

"Being called 'teacher' to me is one of the highest compliments that can be paid a person," said Dr. Findley. "Ken deserves the compliment. He has significantly and with great humility been an integral part of shaping the future of education, the profession and health care.

"We've been on opposite ends of several different discussions, and we have been together on many more issues," continued Dr. Findley. "Dr. Kalkwarf is fair, his actions have always demonstrated his dedication to the profession and the ADA, and his commitment to quality in dental education and genuine concern for the well-being of those in our care has been demonstrated by his actions over many years."

"My father brought me up to realize that people often disagree about things, but if you can bring them to the table, you can find more common ground than they thought existed," Dr. Kalkwarf said. "In dentistry, the only way to get resolution is to bring all sides together and let everyone be heard. Let's collaborate and figure out where we can find common ground. Sometimes it works great, other times it isn't totally effective, but at least we can feel comfortable that we've tried."

Finding the time to contribute to professional issues is a worthwhile sacrifice, he added.

"The dental profession is actually very small," Dr. Kalkwarf said. "The reality is that we have different factions of the profession, so I think we have to have some overlap in our roles to make an impact. I think that's why it's important for people in education to be active in issues like fundraising and licensure."

Dr. Kalkwarf was born in Lincoln, Neb., an only child of a farm family. Dentistry may be small but certainly larger than the profession he was poised to enter when he arrived at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1964.

"I started out in architecture, and my first class involved doing renderings of trees—drawing tree upon tree upon tree," Dr. Kalkwarf explained. "I knew it wasn't for me."

Dr. Kalkwarf quickly found a brochure for the College of Dentistry during a visit to the career counseling office, and having had good relationships with his own dentists, he decided to give it a try.

He received his dental degree there in 1970 and completed a general practice residency at Marquette University and Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee in 1971, then returned to the University of Nebraska to receive a certificate in periodontology and a master's in oral biology in 1973. He planned to move west, for private practice in Montana, when a faculty position opened up at the Nebraska dental school, which gave him an opportunity to teach in the predoctoral, postgraduate, allied dental education and CE programs. The situation improved even more when he met his wife of 35 years, Sharon.

After a brief appointment at the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry, he returned to Nebraska again, this time for a dual assignment that included serving as program director for the periodontal residency and director of advanced education. Soon the dental school in San Antonio came calling, where Dr. Kalkwarf accepted an appointment as associate dean for advanced education.

In San Antonio, he was mentored in the administrative functions of running a dental school by then-dean Dr. Dominick P. DePaola. After Dr. DePaola stepped aside, Dr. Kalkwarf became dean in 1988. He is the fifth dean in the school's history, but has spent more time in that capacity than the previous four combined.

"The duration of a deanship depends on the opportunity, the environment and the institution," he said of his 21-year tenure. "I teach leadership classes and joke to students that you should choose your boss carefully. I've been privileged to work with three presidents here who are very supportive and allow the dental school to do outstanding things. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, become a dean at a young age and stick with it a long time."

Dr. Kalkwarf has held membership and leadership positions in many professional organizations, including the ADEA Council of Deans; International College of Dentists; Academy of General Dentistry; Hispanic Dental Association; Western and Southern Conferences of Dental School Deans and Examiners; Nebraska State Board of Dental Examiners; Texas Association of Advisors to the Health Professions; Texas Dental Association; Nebraska State Dental Association; Omicron Kappa Upsilon (president, Supreme Chapter); American Association of Dental Examiners; American College of Dentists (board of regents); the International Association for Dental Research; Gies Foundation Board of Directors; recipient partner division chair of the ADA Our Legacy—Our Future campaign; and the executive committee of the South Texas Higher Education Authority.

He and Sharon are the parents of Kyle and Kevin, both Iraq War veterans and graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Kyle, 30, was in the first wave of Army troops in Iraq and served two tours of duty. His first six months in the Middle East, during which he slept on top of his tank, were punctuated by a single communication with his parents when an embedded journalist loaned him a cell phone to call home. Kevin, 25, is an Army pilot who has had one tour of duty in Iraq. Both sons are close to home now—Kyle is a third-year medical student at the UTHSC-San Antonio, and Kevin is stationed at Fort Hood to the north of San Antonio. Sharon will be with him in Honolulu when he receives the ADA award. 

"I'm so pleased that the ADA has chosen to recognize an educator," Dr. Kalkwarf said of the Distinguished Service Award.

"It's one of the strong points of the ADA," said Dr. Kalkwarf. "Though most members are private practicing general dentists, the Association works hard to open doors to specialists, dentists serving in the uniformed services, individuals who work in community clinics, educators and dental researchers. That openness has encouraged many conversations under the umbrella of the ADA and it has been a very positive attribute."