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Dr. Robert Ferris to receive 2013 ADA Distinguished Service Award

October 21, 2013

By Kelly Soderlund, ADA News staff

Dr. Ferris

It started with a simple job shadow.

Dr. Robert T. Ferris spent the summers of his youth following around his uncle, Dr. Alfred Ferris, in his Springfield, Mass., dental practice. He watched him treat and interact with patients and hobnob with local and state dignitaries who passed through town.

“The thing that stuck out more than the dental treatments was the kind of relationships he had with patients. They weren't just customers, they were friends,” said Dr. Ferris, 76. “What a wonderful thing; to have people trust you so much.”

The experience sparked a passion in Dr. Ferris and launched a more than 50-year career in dentistry that has yet to expire. It's been a career with many pit stops along the way, taking Dr. Ferris to dental laboratories, the U.S. Navy, periodontics, academia and leadership in organized dentistry.

Dr. Ferris will make another pit stop at the House of Delegates meeting at ADA Annual Session in New Orleans next month when he receives the ADA Distinguished Service Award for 2013. Presented annually, the DSA is the highest honor conferred by the Board of Trustees.

Dr. Ferris said he was “absolutely stunned” to hear he was the DSA recipient this year, not believing it was ADA President Robert Faiella calling to notify him of the honor.

“I know so many deserving people who have made major contributions to the profession that it would take an hour just to list them,” Dr. Ferris said. “At first, I considered the possibility that this was a practical joke and that one of my friends was impersonating Bob Faiella. Seriously. When I realized that it was the real thing, I wanted to tell my daughter and my son, but I didn't because it would have been unseemly. So I sat back and remembered all of the colleagues and friends who opened doors for me and made this possible.”

Dr. Ferris attended dental school at Emory University and graduated in 1961. He signed up for the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1960 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Dental Corps. Dr. Ferris was stationed at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va., for two years while he was a general dentist for enlisted and Navy personnel.

He fostered an interest in periodontics and received a master's degree in the field from Ohio State University in 1965. Following an internship in oral surgery, Dr. Ferris received a Ph.D. in immunology from Ohio State. He said his natural inclination was to continue in academic dentistry, which he did at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, serving in the microbiology department in the medical school and as chair of periodontics department in the dental school until 1971.

That was the year Dr. Ferris opened a solo periodontics practice in Altamonte Springs, Fla. In 1976, he assumed a position as a clinical professor of periodontics at the University of Florida College of Dentistry.

“For a long time I've been able to walk both sides of the street in academic dentistry and clinical practice,” Dr. Ferris said. “There's an enormous benefit in being able to do both. A private practice can be very rewarding and fulfilling, but it puts you in what I call a cottage mentality because dentistry can be so rewarding it becomes habituating. But being part time in academics all those years kept up my views of what was happening in the profession: the new research, the new clinical tools. So I always felt like I had the best of both worlds.”

Dr. Ferris eventually added a third tier of interest: organized dentistry. His resume includes a long list of appointments and leadership positions, including: liaison for the Florida Dental Association to the Florida State Board of Dentistry; two appointments by two governors from opposing political parties to the Florida State Board of Dentistry; president of the American Association of Dental Examiners; president of the Florida Dental Association; president of the American Academy of Periodontology; director and chair of the American Board of Periodontology; and ADA delegate.

“Because of all of this, he's very knowledgeable; not only about a great many of the issues that affect dentistry but he also has an innate knowledge of how to play in political circles, which is a whole different game,” said Dr. S. Timothy Rose, past ADA president, who's known Dr. Ferris since dental school. “He is also very visionary. He can not only look at what may be coming up on the horizon and predict where we're going to be but he has the ability to sit down with people from different perspectives and come to some common agreement to what it all means.”

Dr. Ferris was elected 2nd vice president of the ADA in 2004 and served as 1st vice president from 2005-06. When asked if he would describe himself as ambitious, Dr. Ferris pointedly said “no.”

“Virtually every time one of these opportunities arose, some people persuaded me that I should do it,” Dr. Ferris said. “They always pointed out that if I didn't, someone else would fill in that spot, and they just had more confidence in me. When they said they had confidence in me, it was a boost to the ego. I would think, 'Maybe I can do that job.'“

Dr. Ferris is now a minimal participant in organized dentistry, preferring to mentor up-and-coming leaders within the profession. Dr. Larry Nissen, a colleague of more than 20 years, said Dr. Ferris's devotion to dentistry is unparalleled.

“Not only has he served, he has also mentored many inexperienced volunteers, coaching and encouraging them throughout their careers. Bob's extensive knowledge and his ability to assimilate this knowledge into easily understandable conversation is a very unique characteristic of him,” Dr. Nissen said. “He is always available to advise, counsel or just listen, whatever the situation may require. Our profession needs more people like Bob Ferris, and, hopefully, this recognition of him will remind us of the responsibility each of us has to our profession and our colleagues.”

Dr. Ferris has not only impressed his friends and colleagues with his leadership skills, he's charmed them with his humor and personality.

“Dr. Ferris has a bright sense of humor and he embodies the idea of taking his responsibilities seriously, without taking himself too seriously,” said Dr. Alan Friedel, who served in various leadership roles alongside Dr. Ferris. “Bob has worked hard over the years to maintain a consistently high standard of care for his patients, never forgetting that the root of the word doctor is teacher. He is a highly ethical man who can be forgiving and has always shown respect to all others, especially to those who were his political adversaries. He remains generous with his time, generous in sharing his gifts, both intellectual and financial, and is the very model of what a true professional should be. I am proud to call him my friend.”

Dr. Ferris has certainly been generous to dentistry. He donated $1 million in 2006 to benefit both the Florida Dental Health Foundation and the American Academy of Periodontology Foundation. Both foundations were partner organizations of a national campaign to secure the future of dental education.

“I think it's important for everyone in the dental family to understand the pressing needs of the dental education system in our country,” Dr. Ferris said at the time. “I hope that this gift will encourage people to ask questions, identify needs in education and make their legacy gift to a dental education project that is important to them.”

Dr. Ferris's professional interests go beyond dentistry. He previously owned several hundred apartments at the University of Central Florida; developed and owned a chain of convenience stores in central Florida; and helped organize and sell three commercial banks.

“The wonderful thing about the practice of dentistry is you can make room for those other things in your life,” said Dr. Ferris, who has two children, Leah Yankus, Ph.D., a psychologist, and Robert L. Ferris, M.D., Ph.D., the chief of head and neck cancer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School.

Dr. Ferris, who enjoys golf and fly fishing, has been with his domestic partner, Jennifer Corey, for 16 years and still practices dentistry three days a week in Deland, Fla. He has no plans to retire and said a quote from the golfer Jack Nicklaus has resonated with him, where he talks about his amazement over being paid to do something he loves so much.

“That always stuck with me because I've never known someone who was excellent at what they did and didn't love it,” Dr. Ferris said. “It's like that saying, 'If you love what you do, you'll never work another day in your life.' It's a great career.”