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Donor Profile: Drs. Jane and Lee Graber extend their family legacy with student scholarship fund13 min read

May 10, 2022

Donor Profile: Drs. Jane and Lee Graber extend their family legacy with student scholarship fund13 min read

Drs. Jane and Lee Graber

This profile is one in an ongoing series highlighting School of Dentistry alumni, donors and students.

If there is such a thing as a dental dynasty, the Graber family of north suburban Chicago has built one. From 1916 to the present, four generations of Grabers have practiced dentistry and orthodontics, mostly in the Chicago area.

Joseph Graber started the family’s dental career trajectory more than 100 years ago when he graduated from dental school at St. Louis University as president of his class. His son, Thomas Graber, followed his dad into the profession, becoming an internationally renowned orthodontist, researcher and faculty member at three universities in the Chicago area, as well as the author of more than two dozen textbooks. Lee Graber, impressed by his father’s career, also became a leader in the field of orthodontics after receiving his dental degree from the University of Michigan in 1971 and, later, three advanced degrees. While at the dental school, he met his wife, Jane Graber, who was studying dental hygiene at the time and later returned for her DDS, graduating in 1978. Their daughter, Katie, earned her dentistry degree at U-M in 2002 and is now an orthodontist in practice with her father. Lee Graber’s sister, Susan, and her husband, Lance Robbins, are also U-M DDS graduates (with Jane in the Class of 1978) and they, too, practice in the Chicago area.

With this extensive family legacy in play, Jane and Lee Graber have worked with the School of Dentistry in recent years to ensure that the next generation of dental students has access to the same excellence in dental education that they found during their years at the school. Last year the Grabers finalized details of a major financial gift that establishes the Drs. Lee and Jane Graber Endowed Dental Student Scholarship Fund to provide need-based support to a third- or fourth-year dental student who demonstrates interest and ability in orthodontics and/or periodontics.

The Grabers were inspired to finalize their gift after Dean Laurie McCauley provided a presentation to visiting alums and took them on a tour of the dental school to see the various improvements made during the recent Blue Renew renovation. Jane said the Grabers decided to create the scholarship after seeing changes the dental school had made to better integrate various disciplines in dentistry and create a more common-sense approach to dentistry as a part of healthcare. “It felt right that we might be able to help a student tackle the problem of finances and make a contribution for their lifetime in dentistry and to the University of Michigan,” she said.

Noting that dentists today frequently graduate with educational debt well into six figures, Lee said, “Our sense is that it’s important to attract and support the brightest and best students at what we think is the best dental school. We want to help them to be able to afford this kind of educational experience.”

Different paths

Though Jane and Lee shared an early interest in dentistry, their paths into the profession were quite different. Jane grew up in Ann Arbor, where her father, Richard Watson Berkeley, was a professor in the College of Engineering at U-M. Though he wanted her to follow his career path, she didn’t think it would be the right choice for her. “I looked into it,” she said, “but at that time they didn’t have computers. Everything was hand-drawn. A lot of time was spent alone. And I thought, ‘I don’t want to be working alone. I want to be with people.’ ”

While in high school, Jane worked in the dental office of Dr. Mark Gilson in Ann Arbor, sterilizing instruments and setting up instrument trays for the day’s procedures. Her experiences there sparked her interest in dentistry, but women dentists were a rarity at that time, so Gilson, as well as faculty at the dental school, encouraged her to pursue dental hygiene.

Jane graduated from the U-M dental school with a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene in 1969 and worked for a year in Denver, Colorado, in its health and hospital program. She then came back to U-M for a master’s degree in hygiene. In that program, she was mentored by Dr. Major Ash, who founded the occlusion department at Michigan and was a world leader in dentistry. Ash encouraged her to strengthen her credentials for dental school to improve her chances for admission.

After finishing the master’s program in 1971, she received a faculty appointment at Northwestern University. During her time there, she took a short dental auxiliary course in expanded duties at the University of Kentucky, learning how to do some of the skills performed by dentists, including packing amalgams, taking impressions and giving injections. Hygienists performed on par with dental students who were also attending, Jane said, further motivating her to become a dentist. Jane and Lee were dating at the time and both he and his parents further encouraged her career ambitions.

 That led them back to Michigan, where Jane was accepted to dental school and Lee entered a master’s and doctoral program in human growth and development.

By that time, thanks to federal Title IX legislation related to the education of women, the university was admitting many more women to dental school, and Jane had more than two dozen women in her class, far more than just a few years earlier. It was still challenging being a woman in what remained a mostly male environment. Even more challenging was pursuing a degree while having her first child. But she was determined and graduated on time with the Class of 1978, winning an award for the highest academic and clinical grades in periodontics. Apparently, no one had thought that a woman might win this award and plaque, which lauded Jane for “his” expertise in periodontics.

Jane deeply appreciates her experience at the School of Dentistry. “The education I got at Michigan was superlative,” she said. “I couldn’t have wanted anything more. Challenging? Yes, but you must be fit to deal with those challenges in life. I learned so many things and felt that my transition to general practice was easy.”

An early example

Growing up with a father who was a prominent orthodontist, Lee Graber’s path into dentistry was much more direct than Jane’s. “My dad truly loved going to work. His vocation was his avocation. And I saw the joy in what he did.”

Thomas Graber founded the Orthodontic Section at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, where he was professor and chair from 1969 to 1982. He also helped found the Northwestern University Cleft Lip and Palate Institute, and his research had a significant impact on cleft lip and palate treatment. He wrote graduate and undergraduate orthodontic textbooks and journal articles and was a long-time editor of the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics.

School of Dentistry Dean Laurie McCauley congratulates Dr. Lee Graber during his 50th class reunion last fall.

Lee’s mother, Doris Graber, was a professor of political science with expertise in mass media, political opinion and politics. The Graber family included five children, of which Lee was the oldest. Their parents stressed the importance of academic pursuits, knowledge and curiosity about the world. “We were required at that time to know what was happening in the world,” Lee said, “something my kids to this very day regret, because I tried to pass that on.” They still joke about being required to watch the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” he said.

Lee also credits his father with exposing him to a variety of exceptional people from many different academic and cultural backgrounds, who were often guests at the Graber home, further piquing Lee’s interest in dentistry as well as academics and research.

In high school, Lee worked in his father’s orthodontic office, a group practice that included several doctors who had received their initial training in other countries. That group dynamic was effective because it was an opportunity for colleagues to discuss professional developments and clinical care among themselves, something that Lee continues to this day in his offices in the Chicago suburbs of Vernon Hills and Glenview.

After high school, Lee went to Northwestern University as a double premed/predental and political science major, intending to go to dental school at Northwestern. But his father insisted that he visit the U-M dental school. Thomas Graber was a friend of Robert Moyers, a U-M orthodontic faculty member and founding director of the Center for Human Growth and Development. Lee still gets emotional remembering the visit. “I remember Dr. Moyers putting his arm around me and saying, ‘You’re going to come here. This is the No. 1 dental school in the country. You can’t think of going anyplace else.’ And it changed my life.”

Lee said he received an excellent, albeit rigorous, education at the U-M dental school. Part of that excellence came from the strength of the various clinical departments and breadth of the curriculum, he said. Also, instructors emphasized the importance of patient-focused care. “Whatever the patient needed, whatever was going to be the best, that’s what you provided to the best of your ability. That was stressed to the both of us at Michigan.”

One of the most valuable aspects of his education at U-M, Lee said, was the opportunity, starting in his first year, to assist with research at the Center for Human Growth and Development. It brought together outstanding researchers from various academic and cultural backgrounds in several disciplines, including dentistry, anthropology, anatomy, developmental psychology and physiology. The importance of this integrated approach to healthcare and dentistry, as well as the value of tapping knowledge from different disciplines and cultures, has informed his work throughout his career.

Starting a family/building careers

Lee said the best part of his experience at Michigan was meeting Jane. They met at a party hosted at the Delta Sigma Delta dental fraternity, and next year they will mark 50 years of marriage.

When Lee completed his dental degree in 1971,the same year Jane received her master’s degree in dental hygiene, they headed to Chicago, where Jane taught at Northwestern and Lee entered the master’s program in orthodontics there. After completing that degree, Lee joined the orthodontic faculty as the clinic director while working part-time in his father’s orthodontic office. The Grabers moved back to Ann Arbor when Jane started dental school and Lee entered a program for a master’s degree in anatomy and cell biology and a doctorate in human growth and development.

While in the U-M post-doctoral program, Lee also practiced as an orthodontist initially in the office of Dr. Moyers and then Dr. James McNamara, an orthodontic faculty member, now retired from U-M, who held a professorship named for Lee’s parents from 1998-2014.

Lee also enhanced his research and interdisciplinary experiences during his time at the Center for Human Growth and Developmental. Most of his research was in craniofacial growth and development and its modification, but he wrote his thesis on the psychosocial aspects of facial form. “How did I get an ability to do that? Because I was in a unique academic environment that allowed us to bring together different research areas within the university.”

After completing their graduate degrees at Michigan, the Grabers returned to the Chicago area. Jane went into private practice. Lee began working part-time in his father’s orthodontic practice, teaching at Loyola University and as a research scientist at the ADA Research Institute. He had found the environment at Michigan so inspiring that he thought he would continue to spend most of his time in academics. But research dollars became scarce, so he decided to focus most of his time with the family’s multi-doctor orthodontic practice. He still practices part-time today and is proud to be with his daughter Katie, the oldest of the Grabers’ three daughters.

Lee with daughter Katie in their practice.

Jane credits the joy with which Lee approached his career for convincing Katie to become an orthodontist. “She saw Lee come home every night singing, doing pranks with the kids before dinner, giving each child a chance to talk about their day, and she felt that anything that you did that made you that happy at the end of the day was something she really wanted to look into as a career.”

The Grabers have also devoted many hours to volunteer work with dental associations. Along with her sister-in-law, Susan Graber, Jane helped found a Chicago area chapter of the American Association of Women Dentists. Lee has held leadership positions with local, state and regional organizations and was president of the American Association of Orthodontists. In 1995 he also aided the formation of the World Federation of Orthodontists and has served as its vice president, president and currently is its secretary-general.

These days, Lee also puts considerable time into writing and editing. He heads the editorship for “Orthodontics: Current Principles and Techniques,” a graduate orthodontic textbook his father started in 1969 and is soon to be published in its ninth iteration.

Jane is fully retired. She said she will always miss practicing dentistry but decided to retire after she developed arthritis in her hands. “I had a wonderful career,” she said. “I loved every day that I was practicing dentistry. Even the difficult days were all good days.”

The Grabers believe it’s their responsibility to give back to the institution that launched them on career paths that brought so much personal and professional success and satisfaction. They hope establishing the endowed scholarship fund will help aspiring dentists build their own satisfying careers.

“Dentistry is an amazing profession,” Lee said, “and we both have been blessed. We each had individual doors that were opened for us as well as motivating mentors and colleagues, which Jane and I both appreciate. And we think it’s important to give back in kind.”

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Photo credit for top image: Natalie Hartung, Classic Kids Photography, Winnetka, Illinois

The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral healthcare 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: Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at [email protected], or (734) 615-1971.