James R. Jensen, Sr. : A Life Well Lived

James R. Jensen, Sr. : A Life Well Lived

James E. Spitzmueller, D.D.S., M.S.D.*:

During the summer of 2010, I had the opportunity to share a few hours with Jim Jensen, my mentor. I thought the article I put together with Jim captured some of the important qualities Jim shared with the world. He was a special person, as so many of the faculty, students, and patients of the School of Dentistry found out.


Jim Jensen was a bright young man when he graduated from Washburn High School in Minneapolis in 1940. He worked part-time driving a delivery truck for his dad’s lumber yard, dropping off loads of wood for homes being built in the growing suburbs around Minneapolis. When he entered the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry in 1942, he began a long career of love and service for the School.

Following his graduation in 1946, Jim was sent to the Philippines as a U.S. Army captain. When Jim arrived at the base in the Philippines, his commanding officer sent him to Base M in the northern portion of the Island of Luzon as the one and only dental officer. He had an immediate practice of 3,000 patients plus 400 interred prisoners of the Japanese Army. Jim was responsible for all the dental needs of these troops. He went for a year working seven days a week without any contact from his commander, until one day he was wiring the jaw of a fractured mandible and an older officer came and watched him work. As Jim stopped for a break to mop his brow, the older man identified himself as his commander. Jim wondered aloud how he had been picked for such remote, difficult duty. His commander said that when he saw Jim was from Minnesota he had no doubt that Jim could handle the tasks at hand — he had a very high opinion of the dental school at Minnesota. Throughout Dr. Jensen’s career, he tried to enhance and build that reputation throughout the world.

Dr. Jensen returned from the Philipines in 1948 and joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota dental school, teaching operative dentistry. At that time, the head of the Operative Department asked Jim to give 20 lectures about the relatively new specialty of endodontics. This led him into his specialty, and within six years he was named chair of that department.

At the dental school, Jim held the positions of Chair of the Department of Operative Dentistry and Endodontics, Chair of the Restorative Dentistry Department, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. He was on the planning committee for the construction of Moos Tower. I remember as one of Jim’s graduate students in endodontics that Jim would tell us about the plans for the “new school” to replace Owre Hall: This department wanted more space, that one also … So instead of making the building taller or drawing a bigger footprint for it, they just added wings out into thin air on different floors. This came with many negotiations to arrange the space for the different departments.

Jim became involved with lecturing and consulting around the world because of his desire to improve the conditions in less developed areas. He served as a consultant for dental curriculum, teaching facilities, clinical dentistry, and graduate dental education at 47 universities in 31 countries while representing the World Health Organization/Pan American Health Organization (WHO/PAHO), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and The Midwest Universities Consortium for International Activities (MUCIA). During this time, he spent extended periods of time in Saigon, Vietnam (while a war was going on); Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Monterey, Mexico, among the other places.

Jim never lost his sense of humor. One time as he was teaching in the operative clinic, he gently took a young dental student aside and explained to him that the crown that the student was trying to seat “fit like socks on a rooster” and that they were going to remake the crown. With the grin on Dr. Jensen’s face, the student was reassured that all would be okay and he would be given the help he needed to make things right. Jim always looked out for the struggling student, and with encouragement and direction, each of them learned.

Jim retired from the University in 1992 to a comfortable home with his wife Alvern. He passed his 88th birthday last St. Patrick’s Day. Mentally he was still sharp as always, with the ready smile and funny stories that easily come to mind. His back had weakened, so he walked with the aid of a walker, and his eyes had deteriorated to the point where reading was a challenge, but Jim was always positive.

Jim passed away on January 12 of this year. He is survived by Alvern and their four children. Tom is a business analyst; Jim Jr. a periodontist; Mark an endodontist; and Liz, Director of the Northfield Youth Choir. Jim and Alvern always enjoyed time with the kids and grandkids.

Speaking for the numerous students who have been helped out all around the world, we were surely blessed when God brought Dr. Jim Jensen to the University of Minnesota.

*Dr. Spitzmueller is Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455.