On February 17, 2009, Northwest Dentistry sat down with MDA president Lee Jess to talk about his year so far. We found the Association’s leader to be a motivated and attentive worker, a genuine lifelong learner, a colleague dedicated to the membership, and someone whose zest for life would leave the Energizer bunny in the dust. This is a fella way too busy doing to waste a moment’s time snoozing. And we’re pretty sure he can fly.*
*Please see “Heading Home”
NWD: We traditionally begin with background information from our presidents: where you grew up, what your family was like (any dentists?), your education, and why you decided on dentistry as a career.
Dr. Jess: I was born and spent my first 10 years in Chicago. “Big city life” meant living in an apartment building looking down on a postage-stamp-size yard. I have to say I’m glad I got out of there when I did. It was a crazy neighborhood then, very rough now, I’m told; I probably would have ended up in the Mafia or something!
There were no dentists in my family. My dad got through eighth grade, I think, ran away from home, ended up in Chicago, met my mother, and became a lithographer, at which he did very well. From age ten through dental school I lived in Glen Ellyn, 30 miles west of Chicago, a very beautiful community. That transition was a very important change in my life: good schools, phenomenal teachers, and people who believed in me. They made me the dentist I am today. They said, “You have to do things just right; no short cuts.”
It was my anatomy and biology teacher in high school who was the real turning point. She was a stickler for detail. We had to label things exactly the way we were taught, and even though I did get the answers right, she took me to task for not doing as I had been instructed. After that I did very detailed, precise, and accurate work, which is what dentistry is all about. Let’s just say I worked my way to an “A” the hard way. Add in my church, and coaches in all the sports I played. I was an all-conference center in football even though I only weighed 170. My coach said it was because of my concentration and dedication in everything I did. Even so, I wasn’t a topnotch student until I got into dental school. But - I graduated fifth in a class of 100, so I made up for lost time.
As an undergraduate I went to Ripon College. By the time I was in junior high school I was pretty sure I would be either a physician or a dentist, but it was my dentist who was my mentor - I watched him; he watched over me. And honestly, my physician wasn’t anywhere near as cool as my dentist! My dentist drove a Mercedes and played tennis! He actively kept me coming back to his office, even when I was in college. I was accepted by every dental school in the Midwest, but it was his influence and that of a church member who taught there that led me to Loyola. That was where I really fell in love with dentistry.
Of course my mentor/dentist hoped I would join him in practice when I graduated, [big sigh] but boy, I wanted to get out of Illinois! I wanted to head north. But he gave me so much to take with me. It does make a difference who the people are who lay their hand on your shoulder and guide you along.
NWD: Dentistry is a challenging field to begin with, but the change now is not only constant, but often rapid and tumultuous. What grounds you so you can deal with all this?
Dr. Jess: I always had a job, even when I was going to school full time. I wasn’t afraid of work, and I never had a bad job. I learned steel treating; I typed term papers; I gave haircuts and baled hay. I enjoyed the different experiences, and they all paid off. I came to an understanding and appreciation of the common worker and of what our country is made from.
I got married between my junior and senior years. Mary Jo was a teacher. To this day she keeps me centered. As well, I have been blessed with consistent good health, energy, and endurance. I always say it’s been a steady life. I have missed exactly one day of practice in my life, for a hernia operation (under local anesthesia so I could get back to work as soon as possible). And I still work; I still hunt and fish and ski. Even my kids can’t get over it.
Mary Jo and I have three children and four grandchildren. Our daughter Julie and her dentist/husband Mark live in Colorado. Their children, Jake (5) and Brooke (4), actually compete in snowmobile races already! Our daughter Susie and her attorney/husband Joe live right across the lake from us in Grand Rapids. They have Jessica (7) and Will (3). Our son David, my best friend, keeps me on task whether working or playing along beside him. Mary Jo is involved in community theater here, performing, directing - and guess who’s the stage manager? Grand Rapids is a special, special community, and in a small community you can do a lot of neat things. [laughs] I swear we have more volunteers per capita than any other community in America! And we have the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids helping to support our area through leadership, grant-making, and public policy.
Dentistry has allowed me to actively participate in volunteering and to keep up with all our family activities as well. And of course I have to add that I love to cook, and to be able to share that is very rewarding.
NWD: At what point are you now in your practice life?
Dr. Jess: I am in my late 60’s, and I can still ski in high altitudes with my 30-year-old son. I haven’t given retirement any real heavy thought. If my health, and particularly my eyesight, stay good, why should I? Even with an associate now, the practice is so busy. I see so many people in other professions who have so much to give and to teach who are forced to retire. My patients don’t want me to retire! They keep urging me to continue caring for their families. And of course the state of our investments is changing everything for everyone.
NWD: How did you begin in organized dentistry? What has it come to mean to you over the years? Talk about the Northeastern District. You seem to be quite a collection of rugged individuals who draw a great deal of energy from each other.
Dr. Jess: I think it all really began as Union Board president in college, as Student Council president in dental school, and with other roles that let me interact with adults as other than an aspiring dentist. By the time [former MDA Executive Director] Bob Harder gave me an assignment to chair the Dental Auxiliary Education Committee at the MDA, where I worked with people like Willis Irons and Arnie Hill, it was just a part of who I was, and it was encouraging. Bob would say, “I want you to go on; you have the skills.” But I wanted to be with my children while they were growing up, so I stepped away. The Northeastern District did not forget me, though, and when the time came, they made me their trustee for ten years. In dentistry there is “C.E.” in leadership, too. As for my district, (NEDDS), it is very active, so involved in every aspect of organized dentistry. I couldn’t have dropped into a better district.
NWD: How did that bring you to the presidency? Did you have that “Who, Me??” moment?
Dr. Jess: I’ll tell you the moment I had: I had taken the oath of office, turned to President-elect Bruce Templeton, and said, “Well, here I go in all these presidents’ footsteps.” And he said, “No, they’re your footsteps.” Since then I have believed that to be true. Working with Dick Diercks, our phenomenal staff, and all the people in the background, I can “walk the talk”, knowing that we would not be where we are today without this support to rely on. Dick is a phenomenal leader, positive and knowledgable, and we are fortunate to have him. He works so hard for us. He loves his job and is a student of his work. It is the people around us who keep us centered, and we are lucky to have that in Dick, Bruce, Tim Flor, (First Vice-President) Mike Zakula, (Second Vice-President), Todd Tsuchia, (Treasurer), Mike Kurkowski (Speaker of the House), and the Board of Trustees. I was never uncomfortable because of these very talented people at my side.
NWD: They say “There’s no such thing as ‘a job for life’ now”, but dentistry looks like the proverbial exception. What does this kind of commitment bring with it?
Dr. Jess: I never even considered the possibility of having to change professions once I chose dentistry. It is a job for life, and what a benefit that is. The flexibility is remarkable. You can control so much of how and when you work. What counts is your ability to do the work and continue your education.
NWD: What were the four years on the officers’ ladder like? What are your own areas of special interest within the Association agenda?
Dr. Jess: By the time I became president, I had watched nine MDA presidents close up, and I had, in effect, given myself the background to feel confident if not comfortable. Each had his or her style. That was a good lesson right there.
Because I was so involved in the process over those years, many things just naturally became my special interests, but there was one thing I was particularly concerned to pursue, and that was that the membership was genuinely comfortable with the MDA, because we’d had some ups and downs with that. The communication process wasn’t there. The membership had to know and understand the Association’s philosophy and direction. I feel very positive that that is happening. As I go around to all these different meetings, that is my focus. My goal is to make it to every district, and I will.
NWD: This question is basically a “We are here” progress report on Association activity. Where is “here” right now?
Dr. Jess: I have to tell you that when I accepted that first move onto the officers’ ladder, some of my friends (Matt Anzelc and Mike Zakula) in the Northeastern District said, “Don’t worry, Lee, by the time you’re president it will be smooth sailing.” I reminded them of that about six months ago, and they said, “Don’t worry, Lee. You can handle it.”
The Association’s issues are here and are literally presenting us with what we have to do. The MDA is probably more prepared at this stage in its history than ever before. We started preparing earlier than ever, having seen possible scenarios and working to be ready for any one of them. We truly are a national leader on so many issues, and the other state and national associations are watching to see how we handle the situations. We really are working within the realm of what has to be done. We are getting the right advice. We have the ADA helping us. We have so many good people doing such good work for us. Our committee chairs - I give them such support, and I thank them all so much. We have new programs and committees in an effort to make sure that everyone has input. Legislative Affairs Director Tom Day has taken the grassroots initiative forward so well, along with our lobbyists Dominic Sposeto and Mary Dougherty. Dental Day at the Capitol and Give Kids a Smile say so much about our members’ willingness to give in so many ways. I have to quote Bill Gates, who said recently, “Well, things are tough this year, so we’re going to have to give more.” I don’t think there is any state like Minnesota. I travel around and see the others, but we have continuity in our leadership that keeps everything growing.
NWD: What comes after the presidency for you?
Dr. Jess: I have already made a commitment to the Minnesota Dental Foundation, in particular for fundraising. It doesn’t bother me to ask people for money! [laughs] Ed Kishel is doing a great job there, and I would like to support that. This past year we gave away more money than ever before. Personally I might perhaps change my pace or volume of dentistry. I’d like to travel more to Colorado; pursue my hobbies ... and keep my options open. Sometimes this working for a living cramps my social life!
NWD: In closing, what would you like to tell the MDA’s members?
Dr. Jess: I would truly like to have all of our MDA members involved with their districts and committees. We need to keep our legislators continually informed. Let’s be positive about our profession, our support of the MDA, and continued dental care for the underserved in the state of Minnesota. Paying attention to these issues with everyone pitching in and doing our part will only strengthen the field of dentistry.
This year’s Dental Day at the Capitol was the largest turnout ever in its history.
More than 150 dentists and dental students were visiting with, lobbying, and educating our legislators. Even the legislators said, “Wow, there were dentists everywhere!” That’s what it is all about, our presence at the Capitol.
Thank you, everyone, for all you do to make my job as president comprehensive and exciting. Keep up the good work.