In Memory: Robert J. Feigal, D.D.S.

In Memory: Robert J. Feigal, D.D.S.

Walter S. Warpeha, Jr., D.D.S., Daniel W. Shaw, D.D.S., and Venetia Laganis, D.D.S.:
Bob Feigel, left, his wife Ceese, one beautiful vintage T-bird, and Mary and Wally Warpeha, on a road trip in 2005.

My Friend
Walter S. Warpeha, Jr.*
In his first novel, Minnesota dentist and writer Nathan Jorgenson introduces us to two dentists who meet in school and become life-long friends. As I read it, it rang so true for me. Nearly 42 years ago, on the first day of dental school, Bob Feigal and I walked from the Delta Sigma Delta house to Owre Hall. We have been close ever since.

I guess we both arrived with similar rural experiences, good families, and a distinctive positive life outlook. Bob was the quarterback of his small Pine Island Panthers football team. He worked in his family’s appliance store and as a sideline serviced milking machines. He completed his undergraduate studies at Hamline University and was accepted into dental school on a D.D.S., Ph.D. program with funding from the Air Force. You see, I always found it beneficial to study with the smart kids.

Bob had a special quality I admired that made everyone feel he genuinely appreciated what made each individual unique. He quickly made many friends in dental school and was voted president of this first Baby Boomer dental class. His communication and leadership skills were to be tested as a representative of this unconventional class of the “don’t trust anyone over 30” generation.

Our second year was split between academic coursework and an introduction to the clinic. The Operative Department offered a seminar course of guest practitioners from the community who mainly spoke about their pet techniques. It was like glorified table clinics with a captive audience. We understood that we would all pass the class through merely showing up and perhaps completing a take-home test. Yet at the last minute, the Operative Chair decided that a final exam was required. The class was incensed because at the time our hard-science courses were fully consuming our study time.

At a class meeting, some of our class “radicals” suggested simply not signing the test in protest. A vote was taken, and the motion carried. The scheme came to light as the Operative Department held a stack of completed yet unsigned tests in hand. It quickly became a crisis of authority. As our class president, Bob was strongly encouraged to correct the injustice or the Class of 1971 risked becoming an asterisk.

The honorable Dean Erwin Schaeffer was called back from a hunting trip to deal with the incident. Bob Feigal was summoned to the Dean’s office. Though Dean Schaeffer could see both sides, he explained that this problem could be most easily solved if Bob would just convince his classmates to sign their tests. All would be forgotten.

Understand that the Dean of the Dental School was perhaps the most powerful man in our young lives. Bob’s scholarship and career could be ruined in an instant, and he could be on his way to Boot Camp or Southeast Asia. Surely, the Dean reasoned, someone with so much to lose could hardly afford not to play ball with the powers that be. Bob respectfully told the Dean that his classmates had entrusted him to represent their decision. He wasn’t able to let them down.

At the time, I don’t know how many of my classmates understood the extreme bravery it took to protect our hasty actions. The strength of principle Bob displayed speaks volumes about the integrity of the man. The Dental School wisely allowed the controversy to blow over, and as you know, the Class of ‘71 eventually became dentists.

Bob’s impressive performance as a young man continued as a father, professor, and practitioner in Minnesota, Switzerland, Portugal, and Michigan. However, all may be overshadowed by his final test. Bob was diagnosed in April of 2005 with Stage Four lung cancer, particularly surprising for a non-smoker and avid runner. In spite of the grim prognosis, Bob and his wife Ceese were able to watch a daughter marry and witness births of three grandchildren in four years. His motto was “Live fiercely and love often”, and he demonstrated how to do it well. Again he set a fine example for us all.

Bob, a thoroughly non-violent person, never seemed to “battle” his cancer. He never complained about his situation being a misfortune. He could laugh at his hair loss, joke at now being able to eat butter without guilt, and along with Ceese, carefully plan road trips to accommodate his chemo and radiation therapy. I think as an oral biologist he understood the irony of fighting his own DNA. Instead, he became an active participant in his cancer treatments, thinking he was simply providing behavior management for some wayward cells. We laughed that it may be a parallel to raising your own offspring with similar unforeseen results.

Bob prepared his family so well for his death that the Memorial Service was predominately cheerful, with each of his children sharing stories, singing, and playing instruments. Bob wrote reflections included in the service brochure, a teacher to the end.

I recently reread all the e-mails he sent out since his illness began. I am reminded of his uplifting spirit. I guess I am still learning from this great individual by whom it has been my fortune to be called ... his friend.

*Dr. Warpeha is a prosthodontist in private practice in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Now and Always
Daniel W. Shaw, D.D.S.**
Hello. I’m Dan Shaw. While many of you don’t know me, I suspect you do know about one of the ways I am a part of Bob’s life. I am one of the guys in “the fishing group”. We are seven pediatric dentists who trained at Minnesota within a three- to four-year-period some 30 years ago. We all have been fortunate to have loving and supportive families, comfortable lifestyles, and rewarding careers. And one of our greatest gifts is to have had Bob be a part of our group and our lives.

Our group started as an early morning breakfast seminar while we were studying for our board examination in pediatric dentistry. Four of us made that first fishing trip in 1976. After that, we invited three more to join the group, and we officially became the Minnesota Pedodontic Study Club. While the “study” part of the club was an important part of our early meetings, as time went on that became less important, and the love and support for each other more important. Sitting in fishing boats in the wilderness, no topics were off limits. We shared with each other the trials and tribulations of starting families, opening practices, setting off on academic careers, surviving teenagers, and living with seven feisty spouses. Even the taboo subjects of religion and politics we tackled. We often joked about how much the fish cost us if you figured out the per-pound cost, and we concluded that it might not be cheaper, but it was a lot more fun than seeing a therapist.

Bob was an enthusiastic participant in a couple of the traditions that evolved over the years: a nap in the sun following a delicious shore lunch, and cigars around the campfire as we watched the beautiful Northwoods sunsets. And knowing Bob as each of you does, doesn’t it seem just right that in 2005, the year of his diagnosis and the last time we were all seven together for a trip to Lac La Croix, he caught the biggest Walleye he ever caught, and the largest ever caught by anyone in our group. He was going out in style.

Over the years, each person in the group took on his own role. Bob’s was to be our academic mentor/teacher. We just couldn‘t let him escape from that role, because he was so darned good at it. He kept us abreast of the latest research developments in pediatric dentistry and challenged us to think outside the box and to consider ways of doing things different from what we had been taught in school. Another of his roles was that of chief listener - his quiet demeanor and non-judgmental way of looking at peoples’ lives made him the natural Dear Abby of the group. And his interest in photography resulted in his often being the photojournalist for our adventures. Bob told us that we kept him grounded in what practitioners were doing and, with our questions and debates, provided him with ideas for his graduate students’ research projects.

The other night when we gathered at Bob’s house on the day of his death, Delaney remarked how she felt so secure and calm when her “family of seven” was all together, and that now there will be six. Our fishing group also will now be six instead of seven, and even though on future trips there will be only six of us physically present, there will always be seven there. Bob will be with us in spirit.

In January of this year, Bob sent an e-mail to the guys in the fishing group, and as you know, his writings were so eloquent and meaningful. Since no one could sum up the fishing group better than he, I would like to share with you that e-mail. The subject line read, “ A little celebration of the study club”.

Dear study club,
As we start the new year, I find myself thinking a lot about those people close to me. The “club” forms such a basic support group that my thoughts keep coming to you all. What a history we have, from early days of new acquaintance, studying the literature in early mornings, starting careers, families, maturing into the guys who actually knew some things, and the later years of careers near their endings. All the time learning from one another, sharing life’s challenges, and caring for each other in new and dramatic ways as life keeps changing and delivering challenges to us all.

You have all been special to me. Even though we may not connect too often, when we do connect, the feelings are fine and deep. In my last four years, your presence has sustained me in hard times, with your connecting in so many ways. To mention a few key methods: Jim’s pizza oven in action, Tom’s willingness to make flan when I could not swallow anything else, Joe’s delivery of Joe-shot game, Dan’s constancy in communication, Bob’s Florida messages and winning teams, Michael’s prayers and conservative political messages. In addition, the gifts of music, books, and just plain greetings. Thank you all. You mean a lot to me, and I am very thankful for our years of friendship. Bob

So even though we will now be six, we will always be seven. In closing, I would like to share with you a brief quote from Jane Brody’s recent book A Guide to the Great Beyond. “Perhaps there is no greater salve to hearts pained by the death of a loved one than to know that the person’s life in some way goes on ... through treasured memories or life lessons left for present and future generations to hear or read.”

**Dr. Shaw is a pediatric dentist in private practice in Minnetonka, Minnesota. This section is adapted from the remarks he made at Dr. Feigal’s memorial service.

Fostering the Best in Us
Venetia Laganis, D.D.S.†
When I was asked to write a testimonial about Dr. Feigal by his good friend Dr. Wally Warpeha, I really was not sure if I was the right person to do so. After all, there were 120 graduate students he had mentored. But on the other hand, I could not say no. I consider it such an honor to have been associated with him professionally and personally. So I am going to share a few of the unique memories from my residency.

I met Dr. Feigal when I came to interview with the Department of Pediatric Dentistry on September 11, 1988. My English skills were not so good at the time, but his calm and clear way of speaking was so easily understood that I instantly felt relaxed. Somehow he was able to make sense of everything I was saying with my Greek accent also. Another thing that impressed me at that time was his full head of hair, as most of the “older” men I knew in Greece were bald!

Dr. Feigal had a natural ability to embrace the cultural differences of the international students, and he was, always in a gentle, kind, not intimidating way, trying to teach you the American way of life. The following is a particular example: One day he asked me to do a seven-day dietary analysis for one of the patients I was treating who had a lot of decay. The following week, I went excited to him and informed him that I had discovered why this child had so many cavities: He was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every single day for lunch! Coming from a country where the main meal of the day is lunch and always comes warm from a pot, I could not comprehend that this was what this child was eating for lunch every single day. I do not know how Dr. Feigal could not have laughed at me, but he did not, and he proceeded to explain to me that this was something very common that kids eat for lunch in the U.S. In fact, when he had gone with his family for a one-year sabbatical in Portugal, they had packed a whole suitcase with peanut butter, since that was a favorite food item not available in Europe. Now I find my own younger son eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for lunch!

Dr. Feigal was also very giving and trusting. It must have been in 1992 that he asked me to “baby sit” his kids. He and Ceese were going to a meeting, and I needed to stay at his home on Thursday night, as the grandparents were going to arrive the day after and take over for the weekend. Being a Greek driver, I could not believe that he would let me drive his brand new Honda Accord! It was not until much later that I realized that he had actually trusted me with the most precious of his assets, his own children! I also want to mention that I had never baby sat up until that time, something that I am not sure Dr. Feigal realized! I do not remember what I cooked for dinner that evening, but I do know that I made salad. I wanted to spice it up with tarragon. As I said, I had never baby sat prior to that time! Well, I assumed that the tarragon container had the plastic stopper with the holes, and as I turned it and shook it over the salad, I realized that I had assumed wrong ... instead of making salad with tarragon, I had made tarragon with salad! Of course, we did not eat it.

At that time, the Feigals had a dog named Shiba. Having never had a pet while I was growing up, I was not doing very well with dogs, especially when they were larger in size. (I have no idea what kind of dog Shiba was.) Anyway, we were sitting with Morgan in the living room, and Shiba stood up on the couch. I wanted to tell her “Shiba sit.” Unfortunately, I mixed up the “sh” and the “s”! It was not until I saw Morgan’s eyes getting really big that I realized what I had said. Thankfully the dog did not understand that it was her I was talking to!

Up until that day, I had been wondering why people in the United States go to bed so early. On that particular night, I went to bed at 9:30 p.m., and I slept as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The kids really were wonderful and so well behaved. On Monday, I am sure they gave the full report to their parents: I fed them tarragon with salad, I told the dog to go on the couch, and thankfully, I did not scratch the brand new car...

Coming from Greece, I had learned that it was always important to look good and dress nicely. One day, a cold winter day, Dr. Feigal told me, “Venetia, do you know how you can tell the Americans from the Europeans when you walk around campus?”
“How?” I asked.
“Well, the Americans look ugly, but they stay warm, and the Europeans look stylish, but they’re freezing!” It took many years to change, but now my favorite shoes are a pair of Keens.

On another occasion, I had treated Bob to a nice lunch at my favorite Greek restaurant in Minneapolis. At the time, I was driving a “student car”, a very old, rusty, red Ford Fiesta; the “Red Devil”, as we were calling it. Dr. Feigal did not seem distraught at all when I asked him to position his feet carefully on the upper right and left corners of the floor, as the car was so rusted out underneath that the carpet was the only thing separating the road from your feet. As we were coming through Dinkytown, he asked me to drop him off by McDonald’s so he could catch the bus. Well, we saw the bus coming. He tried to get out of the car, but the handle was broken half way on the passenger’s side, and it was difficult to pull it back and open the door. For our further bad luck, a larger piece was broken off the handle on the driver’s side, and I could not open my door either, especially being in a hurry. I had to then carefully roll my window down, but not all the way so it would not get stuck, and open the door from the outside. We both had a good laugh when I asked him, “Have you ever been locked inside a car?” He told me, “No, this is my first time.” I think it is safe to assume it was his last time also. Needless to say, he did miss the bus!

That was Dr. Feigal! He may have raised five children of his own, but both he and his wife Ceese were the “foster parents” of all his graduate students, especially his international ones, embracing every single individual with the cultural diversities, different backgrounds, deficiencies, and insecurities that we all had. Not only did he mentor his “foster kids” professionally with great patience and kindness, but also he contributed to their personal growth and maturity with his continued guidance and emotional support. If every one of his graduate students wrote a testimonial, I am sure we could fill many issues of Northwest Dentistry. I think I speak on behalf of many when I say that Dr. Feigal was and will remain a legend, a simple man who enriched many lives, and for that, he will be remembered for many years to come.

†Dr. Laganis is a pediatric dentist in private practice in Maple Grove, Minnesota.