2012 Mentor of the Year

March 1, 2012
 “Oh, it’s funny to look back on your life,” says Phebe. “Now I think, ‘Wow, it’s been a very exciting life.

Phillips Sonicare and RDH magazine pay tribute to Arizona’s Phebe Blitz, RDH

By Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

Phebe Blitz, RDH, BS, MS, near her home in San Tan Valley, Ariz.

“Oh, it’s funny to look back on your life,” says Phebe. “Now I think, ‘Wow, it’s been a very exciting life. This is so much better than what I had planned.’”

Like many girls who grew up in the 1950s, Phebe thought she might go to college, get married, have children, and never have a career outside the home. Although she had worked for her older brother, a dentist, during high school, she left her home in Jackson, Mich., after graduation and went to a small college in Tennessee to train for the ministry. She didn’t have much aptitude for the coursework, though, and decided she’d be better off choosing a major with lots of math and science. “Oh,” she thought, “dental hygiene!”

Phebe graduated from the University of Michigan in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, and then worked briefly for her brother. “I stayed just long enough to know I didn’t like it, then I got married, got pregnant, and thought I’d never do hygiene again.”

Little did she know she’d have a dental hygiene career that has spanned almost 50 years. That career included not only clinical practice, but also education, writing, speaking, and consulting.

After college, Phebe and her husband moved to New York City for his first job, and they had two sons. Scott, now 45, is a family practice physician in Colorado, and Brian, 43, teaches math at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Phebe has three grandchildren, with another due this spring: Bethany is a freshman at the University of Montana; Jesse is a sophomore in high school; and Abbey is almost 2 years old.

After her children entered grade school, Phebe decided she might like to do something else with her life, so she stopped in at nearby Columbia University to ask about continuing education courses in dental hygiene. An instructor there suggested she enter a master’s program in dental hygiene education instead. While she was still in the program, Phebe started teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson University, which was followed by a teaching position at Fones School of Dental Hygiene in Bridgeport, Conn.

Phebe founded the Westchester component of the New York association, and was a state president and delegate during that time. She is also a past chair of the Commission for Assurance of Competence.

“ADHA membership,” Phebe believes, “provides an invaluable network of professional colleagues as well as information to help one stay current, and an environment to develop leadership skills. “

Her life took a radical turn when she and her husband divorced. “I was in the hole financially, and couldn’t really afford to stay in New York City. I knew dental hygiene paid much better on the West Coast, so I moved to San Francisco to work in clinical practice. I was something of a rebel in those days. The boys stayed in school in New York, but we had joint custody and they traveled back and forth. It all worked out, and I’ve always had good relationships with them.”

Still active in ADHA, she served as a delegate for California.

Her life took another radical turn when she got a letter from a high school boyfriend, John McKlveen. “We started corresponding, and it wasn’t long before I married him and moved to Tempe, Ariz., where he was a professor at ASU. We had nine fabulous years together before he died.”

It was while she was in Arizona that she founded the Qualitat Institute, a consulting and training firm. After Phebe was widowed, she returned to teaching at Northern Arizona University. During those years she was a state president and delegate to ADHA.

“Then I saw an advertisement from New Zealand. They were trying to start a dental hygiene program. John and I had vacationed there once, and always said we wanted to go back. I spent three years developing a program for dental hygiene at Otago Polytechnic, using the dental facilities at Otago University School of Dentistry in Dunedin.”

While there, she joined the New Zealand Dental Hygiene Association and the International Federation of Dental Hygienists. She attends IFDH symposiums every three years, indulging her love of travel, and is looking forward to the meeting in South Africa in 2013.

She decided to retire to Tucson after that job, but didn’t feel as though retirement held any meaning for her. “I went north next to Spokane, Wash., and worked as faculty at Eastern Washington University for four years, then came back to Arizona to direct the dental hygiene program at Mesa Community College.” This past August, she was named interim Dean of Career and Technical Programs at the college.

“I’m planning to retire in June 2013, when I’ll be 70. I’ll still be working, but I don’t want to do 8 to 5, five days a week, forever. I hope to start writing for RDH magazine again — I did some of that in the past — and I’ll be doing more consulting and training through Qualitat.”

One would be tempted to think that Phebe doesn’t have time for a personal life amid the career changes and moves, but one of her favorite leisure-time activities (besides traveling) is swimming. “It adds to my physical and mental well-being.”

Another favorite activity is rafting. “About every three years, I join with family and friends and raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. We’ve had graduation trips, wedding trips, and funeral trips through the canyon.”

In the course of her long and varied career, Phebe has received professional recognition several times. In 1989, she won the Outstanding Service Award from the Arizona DHA; in 1995, she was recognized by her alma mater with a Distinguished Service Award; Otago Polytechnic presented her with an Excellence in Teaching Award in 1999; and she was given a Century Tel Faculty Achievement Award in 2004.

Of her selection as the 2012 Mentor of the Year, Phebe confesses to some surprise. “My whole life purpose has been to help people advance themselves, but I’ve never thought of it in the sense of mentoring for mentoring’s sake. I especially love developing programs, because then I’m able to work with faculty and see them grow. I also love teaching hygiene students, and seeing them mature over a two-year period. I have some small influence on them, and that’s exciting.”

From the perspective of her own eventful life, Phebe knows that her students’ lives won’t always go as planned. “I drop hints to them. My focus is to help them discover their individuality, to value it, and to empower that part of themselves to know who they are and to speak their own truth. I think once you really know who you are, you’re ready, and you can better handle change in your life.”

The dental hygiene profession, she believes, has tremendous potential and value to society as a whole. “I’m really anticipating positive changes in our profession. I’m hopeful that most, if not all, hygienists can develop themselves enough to unleash their personal power and use it to have a positive impact, not only on their patients’ oral health, but their practice and community as well.” RDH

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, has written on dental topics for 26 years. She speaks on pediatric issues, and works clinically in a pediatric practice. She is also an indexer and a novelist.

What it takes to be a mentor

Four people from different areas of Phebe’s life nominated her for this award. Sarah Jackson of Spokane, Wash., calls Phebe “the reason I am a dental hygiene educator today. She was an incredible mentor to me as a hygiene student and teaching assistant. She taught me how to teach and how to lead. I still continually turn to Phebe for advice and words of wisdom. I am so thankful for her continual encouragement and leadership in my life.”

Lisa Bilich of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, another of Phebe’s students, appreciates her as a role model. “I had very low self-esteem, and felt I would never be able to get in front of a class and teach effectively. Phebe talked to me daily on the attributes I had, and how to use them. Her calm and caring attitude was very helpful when I did not get a position, and she helped build my confidence back to where it needed to be. She is a true inspiration and has helped me become an effective mentor.”

Colleague Trisha O’Hehir calls Phebe “a wise and loyal advisor who leads, teaches, coaches, and mentors by example. Through her roles as clinician, educator, program director, state association office holder, entrepreneur, business owner, and all-around good person, Phebe has challenged my professional growth, and that of many hygienists around the world. Phebe has an innate grasp of professionalism that she shares with students and colleagues. She’s truly an inspiration.”

Fellow instructor Cindy Chillock says of her mentor, “Phebe believes that we can create our chosen future through positive visualization and staying focused on our goals. Thanks to Phebe, I now have a career that, as she puts it, I was born to do. I work with her daily at Mesa Community College in the dental hygiene program. Phebe encourages individual expression and empowerment; tries to surround herself with positive people who are self-actualized with emotional intelligence; and models this behavior. I am proud to call her my mentor and friend of over 26 years.”

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