Carol France White, ’67, had no problem finding her mentor among the nearly 200 dental hygienists gathered for Baylor College of Dentistry’s Caruth School of Dental Hygiene’s 50th anniversary luncheon Jan. 20 in Dallas.
Twenty-some years had passed since White had last seen Joanne Allen, ’57, a member of the first graduating class of the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene, who had encouraged White to go into what was, at the time in Texas, a new profession.
But White recognized Allen immediately. She was talking with other members of the first Caruth graduating class in the elegantly decorated community room at the Mabel Peters Caruth Center where the anniversary luncheon was about to begin. “She looked just the same,” says White. “She looked fabulous.”
Until recently, mentoring was an informal process at the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene, which was founded in 1955 through a generous gift from the Caruth Foundation of Dallas. But many early Texas dental hygenists like Allen intentionally encouraged young women to follow in their footsteps, helping increase participation in a profession that was not officially recognized by the state until 1951.
White was one of three students Allen mentored in the 1960s who attended the Caruth anniversary luncheon, the kick-off event for Baylor College of Dentistry’s year-long Centennial Celebration. White, Jean Berry, ’66, and Jeanne Schwarzentraub, ’68, all met Allen while working at the Dallas dental offices of Dr. Ralph Thornton, ’38, where Allen was a dental hygienist.
“Dental hygiene was very new then,” says White, who was 14 when she began working for Dr. Thornton after school doing odd jobs. “I had never even heard of it until talking with Joanne.”
Allen encouraged the younger women to apply to the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene, and even called the admissions office at what was then Baylor University College of Dentistry to check on their applications.
The women were among nearly a dozen Allen has mentored throughout the years - from Dallas to St. Louis to her current home in Georgetown, Texas, where she still works as a dental hygienist three-and-a-half days a week. Allen says she considers mentoring as important for the dental profession as it is for the young women she takes under her wing.
“Initially I encouraged those girls to go into dental hygiene because Texas needed dental hygienists. They were all bright, and I thought they could be successful at it - while at the same time having time to raise families,” explains Allen. “Back then, mentoring was especially important because few people knew what a dental hygienist did.
“Even today, dental hygiene is not as well-known as, say, teaching, because young people spend so much time with teachers and significantly less with dental hygienists. As a result, mentoring continues to be very important.”
Patricia Clendenin Wessendorff, the hygiene school’s first director, agrees.
“The first students were, in a manner of thinking, real pioneers in their new profession, not having experienced dental hygienists in their own lives,” said Wessendorf. “I emphasized that they had a dual job to do upon graduation - to be the best hygienists they could possibly be and educate the general public about the value of this profession.”
Wessendorff considered herself a teacher, rather than a mentor. But she clearly impacted many, including Kay Gandy, ’57, who went on to become president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Gandy, along with 10 other women, received certificates of dental hygiene from Baylor University College of Dentistry in 1957 as part of a one-time, special class for dental hygienists who had been practicing under a grandfather clause included in the 1951 Texas law authorizing dental hygiene as a profession.
“The closest thing I had to a mentor was Mrs. Wessendorff,” recalls Gandy. “She was very supportive and encouraging at a time when dental hygienists faced many challenges.”
Gandy later encouraged Caruth graduate Peggy Countryman, ’57, to apply for a fellowship for a master’s degree in dental hygiene administration at Columbia University. Countryman received the fellowship and her master’s, and later established a dental hygiene program at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands, and a dental assistant program in Darmstadt, Germany, for a vocational high school. Countryman had worked in a dental office while in junior high and high school. The dentists in that office, Drs. Hardy and Emily Hicks, both 1924 BCD graduates, encouraged her to apply to the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene.
Countryman in turn suggested to a young Kathleen O’Neill-Smith, ’65, to consider dental hygiene as a profession. Countryman cleaned O’Neill-Smith’s family’s teeth when O’Neill-Smith was a teenager living in Midland, Texas, and urged her to apply to the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene. O’Neill-Smith graduated from Caruth in 1965 and went on to become president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association in 1982.
“Mentoring is very important,” says Countryman. “We had two or three classmates drop out because they were surprised when they found out what dental hygienists actually did. It helps to have someone explain it to you and encourage you.”
Mentoring was formalized at the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene in 2001 through a program initiated with the help of the Dallas Dental Hygienists’ Society. Senior students are paired with practicing dental hygienists who help them through the trials of dental hygiene classes and prep them for professional life.
Lana Crawford, ’68, ’72 - who along with Cindy Harmon, ’79, Dianna Prachyl, ’94, ’00, and Glenna Johns, ’65, ’77, ’99 helped develop the program - has mentored students every year since its inception.
“Historically, mentoring at Caruth had been done accidentally because someone had a connection with someone else and wanted to encourage them,” explains Crawford, who continues to serve on the committee that oversees the program. “I wanted to do everything I could to ensure that our Caruth seniors were given every available opportunity to succeed.”
Crawford credits her mentor, Glenna Johns, with helping her develop her potential as a dental hygienist. Johns, whom Crawford met after she graduated from dental hygiene school, encouraged Crawford to lecture and seek an appointment for the Dental Hygiene Advisory Committee of the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners. During the past two decades, Crawford has lectured internationally and served on examining boards throughout the United States.
“I was very hesitant at first about the appointment,” says Crawford. “Without Glenna’s encouragement, I don’t think I would have ever pursued it. And I never dreamed that I could be a speaker.”
Crawford’s gratitude for Johns’ support has made her an enthusiastic mentor in the current Caruth program. Heidi Johnson, a 2005 Caruth graduate, said Crawford’s counseling and connections helped assuage her fears about finding a job and starting work.
“You don’t really know what to expect - whether finding a job will be difficult or not,” Johnson said during an interview last March. “Mrs. Crawford has really done a great job calming my fears. She opened my eyes about how many wonderful jobs and doctors there are out there. And she’s pointed me in directions I might not have thought about on my own.”
But mentoring continues informally as well, sometimes beginning at home. First-class member Jean Riddle Moore attended the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene’s 50th anniversary luncheon with her four daughters. Two are dental hygienists and two are dentists.
Dr. Keely Hunsaker, Moore’s second daughter and a practicing dentist in Corpus Christi, Texas, recalls spending days as a young child at the dental office where her mother worked in Mt. Pleasant, Texas. She remembers the fun she had making turtles out of leftover dental plaster and little plastic molds the dentists kept there specifically for children. Now her youngest child, five-year-old Joyce, is a frequent visitor to her dental office.
“My mother never told us we should go into dentistry,” said Hunsaker, who became a dental hygienist and then a dentist. “But she thoroughly enjoyed her work and always talked very positively about it. That probably influenced me more than anything else. It never occurred to me to do anything else.”
Jeannette S. Keton is a writer and communications strategist based in Rockwall, Texas. Her first book, “Baylor College of Dentistry: The First 100 Years,” was published last December.