NWD: As is our tradition, let’s begin with some personal background: where you grew up, what your family was like (any dentists?), your education, and why you decided on dentistry as a career.
Dr. Zakula: I grew up in Buhl, Minnesota, a small town in the middle of the Iron Range; it had a population of about 900 people at that time. I had three sisters, and I was the only boy. The thing about growing up in a small town is that everyone knows everything about everyone. If you did something wrong in school, by the time you got home your parents already knew about it. [laughs]
I was in a class of 38 in high school, and that gave me the opportunity to be involved in sports, speech, drama, and any extracurricular activity of interest. My dad was also an orthodontist, but never pushed me into the profession.
I had a great time in high school, then moved on to Hibbing Junior College, and it was an excellent educational facility. People said, “Why are you going to a junior college??” It was because their science department was working hand in hand with the School of Dentistry to make certain that the pre-dental studies adequately prepared the students for the rigors of dental school. From a very early age, I was certain that I wanted to be a dentist, and felt that attending Hibbing Junior College would increase my chances of getting accepted into dental
school. I benefited very significantly from the relationship between Hibbing Junior College and the Minnesota School of Dentistry in that I got into dental school directly after two years in junior college — that was a credit to the junior college system up there.
NWD: I didn’t know that was possible.
Dr. Zakula: There were two of us in my class who entered dental school after two years of pre-dental studies. Once at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry I realized some of the junior college courses were as hard if not harder than some of the dental school/grad courses. Community colleges offered outstate people a great opportunity to get a quality education, and still do.
I finished my four years at the “U” School of Dentistry with an excellent dental education. During my final year in school I had applied for and was awarded a health professions scholarship through the Army. The scholarship covered my senior year, with a two-year Army service commitment in exchange. I was assigned to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri — the middle of nowhere. It was a great opportunity to expand my knowledge and skills in dentistry. Another benefit of my stint at Fort Leonard Wood was that upon meeting dentists from all over the country, I discovered that my dental education in Minnesota was superior to most of the other dental schools. I wasn’t challenged or intimidated during my military career, and often found my fellow Dental Captains asking me how to do certain procedures.
I spent the first year serving in a basic training troop clinic. The base had just lost an oral surgeon, and they asked the incoming dentists who wanted to step in. I volunteered, and found myself removing 75-150 teeth a day for months and months. This led me to the realization that I did not want to be an oral surgeon. [laughs] I did a lot of pedo, which was challenging but not something that I wanted to specialize in either. At that time, we had DTAs (dental therapy assistants), and I enjoyed working in that style of expanded dentistry as it allowed us to take care of many of the dental needs for the basic trainees in an extremely efficient manner. Two of my best friends on base were orthodontists, and they convinced me I had a special love and skill for orthodontics, and encouraged me to specialize. That led to an orthodontic residency program at Emory University School of Dentistry in Atlanta, Georgia.
Toward the end of my residency, there was another decision to make. I knew I wanted to practice in a small town, but didn’t know where. In high school I had sworn that I would never return to the Iron Range, but “never say never”. I got married toward the end of my residency, and my wife’s mother had just passed away. We decided that we wanted our (future) children to be able to grow up knowing their grandparents — I think the conversation one night over dinner consisted of “You know, I think we could make it in Hibbing — let’s go up there … ” And here I am 32 years later. It’s been a wonderful place to practice and live. Our sons now are 28 and 25, and they grew up knowing their grandparents. That was a great decision.
NWD: How did you begin in organized dentistry? What has it come to mean to you over the years?
Dr. Zakula: The Northeastern District has historically been one of the most engaged and involved dental districts in the state. There is a long list of leaders who have been an inspiration to me for all these years. In the Northeast District, it wasn’t if you were going to be involved, it was how. I started in the membership and dental education committees, and then moved to the Executive Committee before going up the chairs. I have been in district offices in one way or another for more than 25 years, 20 of those on the Executive Committee. That involvement lit my fire and made me realize the importance of being involved in organized dentistry.
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? What is especially needed now?
Dr. Zakula: Great end decisions and triumphs over challenge can be the end result if we tap into the academic and human resources at hand. That is what I did. Networking is the key, and organized dentistry provides us with all the resources that we need to tap. Communicating with our peers is a tremendous resource and an avenue to strengthen our profession. At this point in time, it is extremely important that dentists remain involved so that dentistry can speak with one voice to address the challenges that continue to confront us. We all must try to do our best to make a difference.
NWD: What has given you those tools, or gave you confidence in them?
Dr. Zakula: Two things. First and most importantly is my wife, who has been extremely supportive, helpful, and forgiving during my commitment and involvement in organized dentistry. And secondly, the chance to learn from some extremely dedicated and intelligent colleagues. From these collegial relationships, you end up drawing from their experience and strengths. Not that you need to be them … If I’ve learned anything from the last year, it is that you need to listen to what others say very carefully, and then you need to listen again before you speak or act. Don’t be too quick to judge, because if you act before you have all the facts, you won’t make a good decision.
NWD: How did that bring you to the presidency?
Dr. Zakula: It came from my 25 years of involvement at the district level. My peers pushed me. They said, “Zak, this is something you need to do. You are such a good advocate for dentists.” The biggest thing, they said, was that “You speak for all of us; you’re not pushing your own agenda, you’re asking questions we all would like to ask, and you’re not afraid to ask them, and we all are going to benefit from that.” The persistent encouragement of my peers is what ultimately led to my decision to go up the chairs. Before I said yes, my wife asked me, “Are you sure you know what you’re getting into here?” And I said, “Absolutely!” [laughs] I should have been more attentive to my own advice about listen and listen again!
NWD: At what point are you now in your practice life? How does this inform your choices?
Dr. Zakula: [laughs] After 36 years in practice, I am at that delightful place where you know what you’re doing, you feel comfortable with it, you know when you’re getting into trouble before you get there. You really have a true love of the profession. Then people start asking you, “What are your plans for retirement?” I haven’t given much thought to retirement this past year, but honestly, I look at practicing until it’s not fun anymore.
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, both as benefit and responsibility? What does it mean to be a dentist today compared to when you started out?
Dr. Zakula: Dentistry as a profession is unique in that it allows us to hone our professional skills for the entirety of our careers. It also gives us many opportunities to become involved in our communities and make significant differences in the lives of our friends, patients, and neighbors. In some ways I am concerned that in our electronic age too many dentists, instead of going to meetings and talking to their colleagues, will listen to a podcast, do something over the internet, or communicate by text. The greatest pearls I’ve gleaned have come from sitting down and talking with my colleagues at dental meetings and gatherings — yes, there is discussion about practice management, materials, but mostly about life. You find that many of them have the same questions and concerns you do. We hear that the lack of direct contact contributes to a trend in considering other dentists as competitors rather than as colleagues, and this may create problems for the profession in the future. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but — it’s the times. New communication styles can be useful tools, but let’s not lose touch with the things that have made our profession special.
NWD: Once you were on the officers’ ladder, what did you have to learn that was outside your own practice or life experience, or at least your comfort zone? How did your personality fit, or not fit, the office?
Dr. Zakula: Starting up the officers’ ladder, the biggest thing I learned was “Don’t be afraid to ask the question no one else is asking.” That has been one of the greatest challenges, because oftentimes everyone else has been on one side of an issue, and you come up on the other side and it’s lonesome, standing by yourself. But the more you do that, the more others will do the same, and it empowers everyone to give their own opinion and ideas.
Looking at the officers who were my predecessors underscores what I have been saying. Dr. Lee Jess: His personal and friendly style was his trademark. Bruce Templeton: One of the kindest, most considerate people I have ever met, with a deep, strong moral fiber, who is careful and considerate of everyone, be it in discussion or when decisions are made. Tim Flor: Being the past military man that he was, he liked to shift some of his military ways and structure into the organization of the MDA. What I learned overall is that you need to be your own person. Draw from the strengths of those who came before, but mostly, be kind, respectful, and honest. I have tried to follow that course throughout my presidency.
My year as president has been unique — challenging, rewarding, draining … but it has been worth every second of the time and effort put forward because changes have been implemented which will help our association be more efficient and effective in meeting the demands of its members.
Probably the greatest benefit I have reaped from my time as president is working with our present Board of Trustees. These are the most dedicated, intelligent, well intentioned, and hardworking people I have ever been associated with. No one could have anticipated the events that initiated all of this change. But this Board of Trustees has faced every single challenge as opposed to kicking it down the road for the next board to deal with. They quickly came to terms with the reality that our association can no longer delay decisions and stay positioned to deal with, as referenced by your earlier question, the constant, rapid, and tumultuous changes that dentistry faces today. Failing to respond creates more problems with even larger issues to deal with in the future. I hope each and every MDA member will make a special effort to tell their trustee how much they appreciate the time, effort, and personal sacrifices that their trustees have offered to this member driven organization. This level of commitment is unparalleled in the history of the MDA.
NWD: Let’s review the Association issues, initiatives, activities, programs, and agenda at mid-point in your year.
Dr. Zakula: The energies of the MDA Officers, Trustees, and staff this year have been/still are focused on the following initiatives, programs, and activities:
• Defined, finalized, and implemented a comprehensive legislative affairs plan including a successful Dental Day at the Capitol.
• Re-defined job description for our legislative director and hired Ms. Laura Kramer as the MDA Director of Government Affairs.
• Resolved language issues in last year’s negotiated Delta Dental agreement.
• Continuing to explore scenarios for the future of Midwest Dental Benefits (MDB).
• Developed and implemented a Membership Program for Growth (MPG), including establishing communication with the leadership of the large dental groups.
• Organized and held two Connection Conferences intended to communicate with members and address their concerns.
• Initiated and implemented the hiring process for an Interim Executive Director and hired Ms. Linda Tacke to serve in that capacity.
• Initiated and implemented the hiring process for selecting a permanent Executive Director and hired Mr. Carmelo Cinqueonce as our MDA Executive Director.
• Reviewed and selected a more cost-effective health care option for MDA staff.
• Developed and implemented an Office Policy Manual for MDA Employees.
• Developed and implemented a Revised MDA Organizational Chart.
• Developed an evaluation process for all MDA staff and consultants.
• Addressing building and landscape issues.
• Discontinued ownership of an MDA vehicle.
• Continuing to maintain and open lines of communication with the leadership of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.
• Establishing better communication with the ASDA chapter of the U of M School of Dentistry, including the hosting of two U of M School of Dentistry Leadership meetings for ASDA leaders.
• Continuing to monitor activities of/provide input to the Minnesota Board of Dentistry.
• Implemented “Street of Realities Tour” for dental students.
• Developed and implemented symposium on electronic records.
• Sponsored this year’s annual “Give Kids a Smile” program.
• Continuing fundraising and finalizing plans for Minnesota’s First Mission of Mercy.
• Participated and contributed to the National ASDA Annual Session, which was held in Minneapolis.
NWD: What comes after the presidency for you?
Dr. Zakula: Oh gosh — get to know my wife again and return to my hobbies. Looking forward to spending some time hunting, fishing, kayaking, snowshoeing and hiking … just enjoying some free time. I’ll also be watching to see how the seeds of change that were planted this year at the MDA grow and develop.
NWD: In closing, what would you like to tell the MDA’s members?
Dr. Zakula: Obviously, our association is in the midst of a comprehensive organizational change. Purely the intent is to make the MDA a better and stronger organization. These changes have been well thought out; there has been a plan in place; and there has been extensive discussion before any of these changes have been implemented. With comprehensive change come many bumps in the road, and we have hit our fair share of bumps while waiting for the process to unfold. But it is going to be well worth driving through the construction zone here, and I see a remarkably bright future for our association and its members. Our new Executive Director, Carmelo Cinqueonce, is a personable, energetic, intelligent, enthusiastic individual and will be taking our association to the next level. All members will benefit in the long run. In return, it is important for everyone to remember that this is a memberdriven organization. All must be resolved to make certain that members of the MDA continue to demand that their trustees and officers be actively engaged in voicing what the members truly want. That is the Board of Trustees’ vision, and all efforts are aimed there.