For these families, U-M dentistry is a tradition24 min read
Ann Arbor, Mich., Aug. 3, 2018 -– History is repeating itself in a significant, multi-generational way with the Class of 2022 at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry.
Each class usually has several students with parents who attended the U-M dental school, but third-generation students are uncommon and fourth-generation students are rare. This year, 14 of the 109 entering students have parents who are alumni, the most in recent years, and the class also has the distinction of having both third- and fourth-generation students.
Kiera Robinson is following her father, grandfather and great-grandfather to the dental school, making the Robinsons the first direct-descendant four-generation family in the last 14 years.
Another family with students in the entering class is also on its way to having four consecutive generations of dentists, but only the last three generations attended U-M. Sisters Kelly and Taylor Chick are following their mother and grandmother to U-M; their great-grandfather earned his DDS at Loyola University.
Following are the stories of how the Robinson and Kerry-Chick families are defining multiple-generation loyalty at the U-M dental school.
Four Robinsons: Three Thomases and a Kiera
Kiera Robinson is following three Thomas Robinsons in the latest chapter of her family’s enduring commitment to dentistry and U-M:
• Great-grandfather: Thomas F. Robinson (DDS 1932)
• Grandfather: Thomas G. Robinson (DDS 1964; MS ortho 1966)
• Father: Thomas J. (T.J.) Robinson (DDS 1996; MS ortho 2002)
• Daughter: Kiera Robinson (Student, Class of 2022)
When Thomas F. Robinson died in Sault Ste. Marie in 1991 at age 85, his family had to cancel upcoming appointments for some of his dental patients because he was still practicing part-time. For nearly 60 years, he had been a well-respected dentist in the Sault with a reputation for making the best dentures in town.
His community standing at the end of his life would not have been predicted in his teen-age years. At age 13, he ran away from home in the western part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and lived with his grandparents in the Sault. After joining up with some older boys who were breaking into train cars, he was among those who were caught and faced a judge. He was sent to what was then called “Indian School” in Mt. Pleasant, where he learned blacksmithing and tailoring. He returned to the Sault for high school, working at the famous Soo Locks. The family story is that the day he graduated, he hopped a lake freighter and sailed to Detroit not really knowing what he wanted to do in life. He enrolled in Highland Park Junior College, then Wayne State University. He made money working in a Chrysler auto plant and at a post office, where he met a dentist who convinced him to enroll in dental school.
When Robinson graduated from the U-M dental school in 1932, he went back to the Sault to start a dental practice in the middle of the Great Depression. His son, Thomas G., recalls that his father was proud of overcoming the tough times early in his life. “He used to tell me that when he opened his practice, that was when they closed the banks. He didn’t come up the easy way.”
The senior Robinson’s practice was on the second floor of the Masonic Building in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. He spent decades climbing the stairs without complaint and without sympathy for others who had to. He would tell his son, only half joking, “If the patient can’t get up the stairs, if they aren’t that healthy, I don’t want to see them.”
“He always used to run up those stairs,” Thomas G. recalls. “I thought the guy was nuts. What are you trying to prove? But I found out in later years, I was doing the same thing, so it must be some sort of genetic defect.”
Thomas G. Robinson was running up those stairs in later years because he followed his father into dentistry and they shared the same office for 25 years.
In high school, the younger Robinson worked for his father, doing carvings for gold inlays, which he enjoyed, and answering the phone and filing records, which he did not enjoy. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be a dentist, but a career aptitude test pointed to engineering or dentistry, so he decided to follow his father to the U-M dental school.
He liked periodontics and worked closely with faculty member Dr. Bob Nissle, who put the student to work sharpening instruments and assisting during surgeries at Nissle’s office. Robinson won the Bunting Award for his perio work and planned to make that specialty his career -– after he completed a military commitment prompted by the expanding war in Vietnam. In the last months of his senior year, however, several developments moved his career in a different direction.
As Robinson approached graduation in the spring of 1964, he was part of a military call-up of dental students. He volunteered for the Air Force, expecting to spend a couple of years overseas, perhaps in Europe, as a military dentist. A few weeks before graduation, the Department of Defense announced that it had enough dentists and deferred the commitments of many in the class, including Robinson.
That left Robinson free to pursue his master’s in periodontics. Dr. Robert Doerr invited Robinson to return to the dental school in the fall of 1964 to teach for a year, then he could apply for the master’s program in perio. Robinson decided to spend the summer in the Sault working for his father. Robinson’s girlfriend (and eventual wife Harriette) quit her job at the U-M hospital so she could join him Up North for the summer. Robinson had been in the Sault only a week when Doerr called to ask if Robinson had ever considered orthodontics; a student had withdrawn from the orthodontics master’s program and Doerr was offering the spot to Robinson, waiving the usual one- or two-year delay before a DDS grad could enter graduate school. Robinson hadn’t much liked what little orthodontics training he experienced for his DDS, but he accepted the fast-track opportunity to a master’s and returned to Ann Arbor the following week.
Two years later, in 1966, Robinson began work in his father’s office in the Sault, not as the periodontist he had originally envisioned, but as an orthodontist. The switch from perio to ortho had been abrupt, but maybe it made sense all along. Robinson remembers talking to the man who administered the career aptitude test he took in high school: “He told me to go into engineering or chemical engineering or maybe dentistry. So orthodontics, you might say, is engineering of the mouth, so he wasn’t too far off.” Robinson improved countless smiles -– and ran up those stairs to the second-floor office – for 51 years until he retired in 2017.
Thomas J. Robinson became known early on as T.J. to avoid confusion around the house and within the dental practice of his grandfather and father. Despite the naming tradition, there was no family assumption that the third Thomas Robinson would be the third consecutive dentist. “I worked in my father’s office a little bit when I was in high school and during my college years,” T.J. said, “but he really didn’t press me in any certain direction, which was a credit to him. My parents let me determine my own path.”
Like his father, T.J. received career aptitude counseling as a teen and it pointed toward medicine. Since he liked to work with his hands, he thought he would go to medical school and train as a surgeon. Somewhere during his undergraduate years at Ohio Northern University, he switched his thinking back to the family profession, a decision that leaked out at his parents’ 25th wedding anniversary celebration. It surprised and delighted his father, who recalls: “My reaction was, where did this come from? He was geared toward medicine, but I think when he saw what dentistry has to offer – being your own boss and your own hours. An individual practitioner was a lot more inviting than the medical profession.”
T.J.’s time at the U-M dental school was marked by a major challenge. In his third year, he sliced a tendon in his right thumb. After surgery, he had to wear an arm-length cast for several months. It hindered his clinical work and slowed his mastery of various techniques. Although he graduated with his class in 1996, he was discouraged with his development and wanted more experience. A friend who was entering the Air Force, suggested T.J. do the same. The Air Force offered T.J. a position in a one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry program and he accepted. He spent the first year at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, then two more years of general duty dentistry at a base in South Dakota.
During his three-year Air Force commitment, he decided to pursue orthodontics and was accepted into the U-M master’s program. He returned to U-M from 1999 to 2002, working with Dr. Lysle Johnston, a distinguished and demanding faculty member who was the chair of T.J.’s thesis committee. “I got to endure many red pencil marks,” T.J. said. “He was tough -– a very tough person to do a thesis under. But I learned a tremendous amount, including about statistics and the English language.”
T.J. tried a year of practicing orthodontics back in his hometown of Sault St. Marie, but decided it wasn’t a good fit. After networking with colleagues in search of a practice to buy, he settled in Findlay, Ohio, in 2003 with help from Dr. Chris Roberts, a U-M adjunct faculty member who lives in Findlay. Like Roberts, T.J. began working one day a week as an adjunct at the dental school, a routine he has continued for the last 15 years. The 90-minute drive is worth it, he says. “Once you’ve been in the higher education environment for so long and you are used to the rigors of academia, there are some people who really enjoy that and keep on learning. And you get to see other people learning and you want to help them get past the hurdles and see them excel as much as possible. You get to help out the future generation. And it’s nice to talk with my other faculty colleagues, get second opinions and find out about the new trends.”
Kiera Robinson says choosing dentistry as a career wasn’t a decision she made; it was something she always knew she wanted to do -– regardless of her family history. During college she considered psychiatry “for a second,” but otherwise never wavered.
“I have always seen myself being a dentist,” she said. “Dentistry has always been a part of me. It’s one of my very defining factors. I’ve never felt pressured to go into dentistry. It was always me pressuring myself to do things to get here. My parents never even had to have the conversation: OK what are you doing with your life? Because they’ve always known because I always talked about it.”
Although she grew up in Findlay, she got to know Ann Arbor well because she regularly accompanied her father on his weekly trips to the dental school. While he was teaching every Thursday as an adjunct faculty member in the orthodontics clinic, she would do her home-schooling home work in the dental school atrium or at numerous other locations around Ann Arbor. She already knows most of the city’s landmarks, even those now long gone, like the Border’s book store on Liberty Street where she spent countless hours as a kid reading and doing homework. “This is like my home. I love Ann Arbor. I’ve always wanted to live here,” she said.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to set up my life in a way that I could get into U of M, specifically for dental school. Everything in my life has been kind of centered toward this one goal. Now that I’m here, it’s a very weird feeling not to have the same drive to do the next thing.” Her focus has shifted to her coursework and exploring the various aspects of general dentistry. Later she will determine if she wants to pursue orthodontics like her father and grandfather.
Once Kiera began applying to dental schools, Thomas Robinson worried about the difficulty of getting into Michigan. And he also worried that his granddaughter from Ohio might have to defer to the dental school at U-M’s arch rival, Ohio State. When T.J. called with the news that U-M had admitted Kiera, Thomas said his reaction was one word: Wow! He was relieved and thrilled that a fourth Robinson was headed to the family dental school.
After the initial celebration faded a bit, T.J.’s reaction was typical Dad material. Though his daughter graduated summa cum laude in three years from Ohio Northern, T.J. delivered his best “back in my day” cautionary speech: “I told her that the entire time I was in dental school I never went to one single football game, hockey game, anything, because I was studying so much. The amount of material that you need to get through requires a lot of attention. Take time for yourself to make sure you are mentally healthy, but you have to stay focused on time-critical material. You have to be on top of things right from the beginning.” Kiera knows it will be more difficult than undergrad, but she seems undaunted. “There’s a reason Michigan is so highly ranked,” she says.
This summer, after Kiera was admitted, her grandfather gave her the wooden dental cabinet and desk that her great-grandfather used in his office in Sault Ste. Marie. It now sits in her apartment, a daily reminder of how deeply dentistry is ingrained in the Robinson family tree.
The Kerry-Chick Dentistry Lineage
When sisters Kelly and Taylor Chick took the stage for their White Coat Ceremony last week, their family joined a select club of those who have sent three generations through the U-M dental school. The family’s dental school roster:
• Grandmother: Gloria Kerry (DDS 1956; MS in perio 1966)
• Mother: Karen Kerry (DDS 1985). Aunt: Julie Kerry (DDS 1985, MS in perio 1987)
• Karen’s daughters: Kelly Chick, Taylor Chick (Students, Class of 2022)
Dr. Gloria Kerry could be forgiven if, at age 87, she wanted to spend more time looking back at her dentistry career than forward. But that’s not the case. She’s still seeing patients at the Kerry Family Periodontics office in Ann Arbor several days a week. It would be easy to turn the operation over to her two dentist-daughters, Karen and Julie, and their associate, Steve Meraw, but she loves her patients. Many of them have been coming to her for decades. And there is the family camaraderie element of the practice – not just with her daughters, but now with two granddaughters starting dental school at U-M. Add in the history of her father, Edgar James, who also was a dentist, and there are four generations of reasons why Gloria Kerry is still focused on dentistry.
This family dentistry dynasty began early in the last century in Calumet in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. The family story is that Edgar James’ father gave his son $50 and told him to go get an education. Edgar went to Chicago, completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago and earned his dental degree at Loyola University. He returned to Michigan and established his periodontal practice in Detroit. Gloria grew up around her father’s practice, but when she graduated from high school in 1949, it was a time when few women considered dentistry or medicine. She enrolled at U-M, studying zoology, political science and history, but ultimately followed her father’s lead. “I always wanted to improve the world through people and their health, so I naturally thought of dentistry,” she said.
The admission process at the U-M dental school confirmed that she was embarking on a male-dominated career path. An administrator asked her during the admissions interview, “Are you here to get an MRS degree?” She hadn’t heard that expression and told him she didn’t know what he meant, so he clarified the question: “Do you intend to ever practice dentistry?” He had a limited budget of state dollars and wanted to make sure the school was turning out practicing dentists rather than a female student who would get married, raise a family and never practice. Gloria assured him her intention was to practice, she was admitted and she became the only woman to graduate in the dental school’s Class of 1956.
Gloria said her classmates treated her well -– “like a princess” -– but she sensed that some faculty members were uncomfortable with the lone women in the class. She remembers receiving the occasional jibe, usually from a classmate, observing that her work was “not bad for a girl.” The school did not have a women’s locker room, so she was assigned to a converted janitor’s closet. The final indication of her pioneering status as a woman in dentistry came in printed form when she received her periodontics license from the Michigan State Board of Dentistry in 1965. The certificate was pre-printed except for the spaces where the newly commissioned dentist’s name, specialty and date were filled in with calligraphy. The pre-printed wording assumed the holder of the license would be male. Below Gloria’s name, the certificate attests that “he is legally authorized to specialize in Periodontics.” The document hangs on a wall in her office and she still takes great delight in showing it to patients and visitors.
Given the “Mrs.” questioning at her admissions interview, the irony is that she and her husband Bob Kerry, a surgeon, began a family almost immediately after she finished her DDS degree. She joined her father’s practice in Detroit, initially working part-time to balance motherhood with dentistry. She further complicated life by going back to the U-M dental school for her master’s in periodontics, which she completed in 1966. She was asked to join the faculty and wanted to, but she deferred the opportunity until 1974 when the last of her five children started kindergarten. So that she could still practice while teaching, she moved from her father’s practice in Detroit to one she started in Ann Arbor in 1975. During her 15 years on the dental school faculty, she started as an associate professor and was promoted to professor in 1979. Her teaching and research included work with legendary professor Sigurd Ramfjord on his acclaimed longitudinal research project. Her contribution to a five-year study evaluating the clinical results of surgical and non-surgical treatment of periodontal disease earned her the Award for Clinical Research from the American Academy of Periodontology. She continued to teach at the dental school until she retired as professor emerita in 1989 and returned to her practice full time.
Her career highlights include fellowships in the American College of Dentists and International College of Dentists. She is the past president of the Washtenaw District Dental Society, the R.W. Bunting Periodontal Study Club and the American Association of Women Dentists. She was the first female member of the Ann Arbor Rotary Club and is a past board member.
Most dental schools today have classes that are at least 50 percent women, which makes Gloria’s journey all the more remarkable. Even so, she deflects questions about how she was a pioneer who set the stage for female dentists in the decades that followed her education. She was just doing what she wanted to do – combine family life with dentistry and dental education. She does, however, acknowledge one small satisfaction she remembers when she returned to the dental school as a tenured associate professor. Armed with a master’s degree in perio and extensive dental research and dentistry experience on her resume, she had a simple question for the administrator who had asked the MRS question 20 years earlier: “Are you happy with me now?”
Dr. Karen Kerry has fond childhood memories of accompanying her mother and sister Julie on the train into downtown Detroit to the dental office where her grandfather and mother practiced. She remembers her grandfather’s habit of taking a noontime nap before seeing his afternoon patients and she recalls the excitement of going to pick up lunch and treats at nearby eateries. Through the years into high school and college, Karen watched as her mother balanced her dental practice and teaching as a dental school faculty member. “It’s nice to watch your mom and see how happy she is, and how accomplished she could be, and how much time she still had for the family,” Karen said. “She controlled her environment. And especially for women, you don’t get to do that in some other settings, especially corporate. That was appealing to me.”
Despite the running joke of her surgeon father that someone in the family ought to consider becoming “a real doctor,” Karen decided on dentistry after finishing her undergrad degree at Duke University. She completed her first year of dental school at U-M, but then took a one-year detour to consider whether to pursue a career as a veterinarian. She decided against it for various reasons, including the fact that those patients -– dogs, cats, horses -– can’t tell you what hurts, she jokes. After the year off, she returned to dental school with one very familiar classmate – her sister Julie, who is a year younger. They graduated in 1985 and both joined their mother’s practice, which Gloria had moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor in 1975. The practice has also included several non-family associates over the years, but the core of the practice has remained Gloria, Karen and Julie for the last 33 years.
Many of their patients have been coming to the practice for decades, which leads to strong dentist-patient bonds. They recently counted 18 patients who are in their nineties; one patient who recently died at age 99 had been treated by Edgar James in Detroit and he kept coming to the next generations of the Kerrys even after the practice moved to Ann Arbor. Now Karen sees a future with her two daughters, Kelly and Taylor, joining the family tradition of providing long-term patient care.
“The one thing that I think that is different for us, as a perio practice, is that you get to have an ongoing relationship with patients,” Karen said. “For us the really rewarding thing is that you get to keep seeing them and multiple generations of families, too. I think Kelly and Taylor saw that as well.”
Taylor Chick said she felt no family pressure to be a dentist, instead acting on the advice of her dad, Brad, to get a well-rounded education, then decide on a career. She focused on history, international studies and comparative culture for her undergrad work at U-M, but along the way decided dentistry would be her career.
“I thought about being a teacher because I wanted to help people, but I saw first-hand with my mom how dentists do that, too. She helped one of my friends with her teeth and it changed her whole life,” Taylor said. It was one of many examples she witnessed over the years of visiting the family dental office that disproved the often-stated truism that everyone dislikes going to the dentist. “I realized that people love the dentist if they are caring and work hard for their patients,” she said.
“Once I started to think about what I wanted to do with my life and came back to dentistry, then my parents were like, well, you know that you have a great profession that could be handed down to you. But they let me do what I wanted. They were pretty easygoing about everything.”
Having role models so close helped with the decision. “I definitely realized early on that my grandma was the matriarch. She’s pretty famous in Ann Arbor. It was cool to see that,” Taylor said. “When she was growing up, women didn’t always go into any fields other than teaching or nursing. She wanted to be a dentist so she’s always been an inspiration for me. She was very driven, especially at a time when women weren’t always going out in the world to find a profession. So she has been someone to look up to. I always go to her and my mom for advice. They’ve helped me a lot.”
Kelly Chick was enthralled with dentistry even as a child, once choosing two years in a row to dress as a dentist for Halloween. “I was practicing on my sisters with dental instruments -– not in a terrible way! -– just looking at their teeth with a dental mirror,” she said. By high school she had decided on dentistry and was helping at the family office.
Like Taylor, Kelly didn’t feel pressured to choose dentistry -– she characterizes it as a lifelong dream. She summed it up this way in a short video interview with entering students during orientation: “I come from a long line of really strong women who all went to U of M, so I’m really excited to follow in their footsteps.”
Kelly majored in evolutionary anthropology as an undergrad pre-dental student at U-M, but finished with a grade point that was short of dental school standards. She went to Plan B, working full-time at the family dentist office for several years. “It was kind of natural progression to start working there while I was waiting to figure out what my path into dentistry was going to be,” she said. She completed a radiology certification and worked part-time on the master’s degree in biology that she eventually completed at Eastern Michigan University. By the time she re-applied to the U-M dental school, she was much more well-versed in the many jobs and functions of a dental practice than the average student.
At age 30, she is the oldest of four sisters; Taylor, 25, is the youngest of the four. Both say the age gap and their personality differences will be a good mix for going through dental school together. “We have different strengths, so it is nice to collaborate,” Kelly said. “I’m probably more the one who can take a step back and realize that not everything is so terrible right at this second. She’s the more studious. She can make me more studious and I can make her calm down a little bit. And having worked in the practice, I have a lot of background knowledge of dentistry that can help.”
Gloria said she is absolutely thrilled that two of her granddaughters have chosen dentistry and -– even better -– that they are going through at the same time, just as Karen and Julie did. What was her reaction when she learned they were both accepted into U-M? “I opened a bottle of champagne. That was terrific!” she said.
Karen said it’s no secret that the first and second generations of the Kerry Family Periodontics would like the third generation to take over the dental practice. “We’d love that,” she said. “I’m sure that’s going to happen. I’m absolutely positive.”
The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service. General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan. Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies. Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide. For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu. Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (734) 615-1971.