I was listening to my
favorite radio personality, Joe Soucheray, the other day when I heard the Dean
had died. To a generation of Minnesota
dentists there is only one “Dean”: Erwin Schaffer. Joe was mourning the passing
of another “Great Living American”, and indeed it was the Dean. Dean Schaffer
would have gotten a great kick out of that, as he was a huge fan of Soucheray’s
afternoon radio show “Garage Logic”. I call the show frequently, and the Dean
would always remark that he had heard me whenever we would meet.
It’s not that I was
anyone special to the Dean, or rather, I guess I was special to him, as were all of his former students. We all
looked forward to having the Dean drop in on our reunions or other dental occasions.
He would always commandeer the mike and hold forth, adding mightily to the
general jocularity of the occasion. Never was his legendary sense of humor and
camaraderie more apparent than on his many visits to his beloved Duluth.
A frequent guest at district
dental functions, Dean Schaffer was most famous for his long relationship with
that venerable dental “study club”, the Duluth Dental Forum. Several years ago
I had the daunting task of editing the entire Forum’s meeting minutes to
produce “A Fifty Year History of the Duluth Dental Forum”. The exploits of the
Dean and his buddies Charles “Bucko” Wilkinson and Tony Romano on the annual
Forum fishing trips are legion, historic, sometimes embarrassing, but always
The Dean, as we all
know, was a pioneer in the field of periodontics. You might say he was the
“Michelangelo of the Mucosa”. He was the first periodontist in the world to
graft cartilage to bone. He published hundreds of scientific articles on
evidence-based periodontics and was director of the American Board of
Periodontics and president of the American
Academy of Periodontics.
But let’s talk fishing.
The Dean was an expert small mouth bass fisherman. In 1975 he landed the
largest small mouth bass (is that an oxymoron?) taken by fly fishing in North America. I recall seeing a photo of a stringer of a
limit of small mouth bass caught by the Dean. Every fish was at least five
pounds, and you “smally” fishermen know what a big deal that is.
The Dean was a skeet
shooting champion, and at age 70 won a gold medal in downhill skiing, careening
through the finish-line fencing in the process!
The Dean will always be
remembered for his efforts to make the “new” University of Minnesota Dental
School building a reality. I was a student at the time he was fighting for
construction money in the state legislature. His plan, as I recall, was to ask
for the moon so that after they cut back his request he would be left with just
what he needed. Well, he was so convincing he got the “moon” and more. The result
is that famous part of the University skyline known as the Moos Tower.
Erwin’s obituary claims it is affectionately known as “Schaffer’s Molar”. Those
of us actually present at the time recall the Dean being needled by his friends
with a different anatomical structure mentioned in reference to the impressive
tumescence of the tower’s architecture.
As impressive as the
dental school architecture is, how much more impressive was the way the Dean
furnished it with some of the finest minds of our profession. The Dean scoured
the state, especially the hinterlands, where he recruited a staff of the finest
“wet-fingered” (you young folks don’t want to know what that means) dentists.
Clinicians like the aforementioned Tony Romano and Iron Rangers Bob Anderson
and Bill Hudelson made the Department of Operative Dentistry at the University
the best in the nation. Odie Langsjoen replaced A.B. Hall, and Fred Noble
succeeded him. The Dean also scoured the planet to bring in folks like Larry
Meskin, who founded the Department of Health Ecology; Hussein Zaki,
periodontist from Egypt;
Maria Pintado, expert on dental anatomy, from Ecuador;
and Mike Till, pedodontist, from exotic Iowa.
I thank God for the Dean and the truly world-class education he provided us.
Yes, the Dean left his
mark not only on the University skyline but on the hearts and minds of
countless students, faculty, researchers, friends, and patients, not to mention
schools of small mouth bass.
The Dean. We will not
see his like again. May he rest in peace.
*Dr. Stein, one
of the Dean’s grateful students, and whose mother was Erwin Schaffer’s organic
chemistry lab partner, is the Executive Editor of Northwest Dentistry.