In 1973, Connie White came to UMKC to start college, and she decided to stay. And stay. Now, on Aug. 31, she will retire from the School of Dentistry, her professional home for all the decades in between.
“I left my home in southeast Missouri when I was 18 and moved to Kansas City,“ said White, who earned a chemistry degree in 1977 and her doctor of dental surgery degree in 1981. “After eight years of school, I joined the faculty and did my graduate work in oral medicine and oral biology while I was teaching. I’ve taught 40 years, so that’s 48 years total I’ve been here.”
Now she is ready to step back, savor her accomplishments and memories, and take stock in what’s next.
“I have three grown children and two grandchildren, and I’m looking forward to spending time with them and with my husband,” she said. “We would like to travel more, too, once the pandemic allows.”
And what will White miss the most about the School of Dentistry?
“The people,” she said. “People make the school special.”
White figures that over the years those people have included more than 10,000 students, “and at some point things tipped,” she said. “I started out teaching with faculty who had taught me, and then I was teaching with people who had been my students.”
White also has seen fascinating changes in dentistry and dental education. The level and variety of services offered to patients have advanced greatly, she said, and the age of digital dentistry has brought improvements in everything from recordkeeping to X-rays and surgical precision.
“I think we do better in treating the whole patient, too,” White said, “improving overall health and not just dental health.”
White has served the school and its faculty, students and patients in many roles, including chair of the faculty and chair of the Department of General Dentistry. Much of that work has involved people skills as much as dental knowledge.
“I was the second child in my family, so I often was the one making peace and smoothing things over,” White said. “And at the school I often have been the one making sure everyone feels heard so conflicts get resolved.”
Dental students have changed over time, too, White said.
“When I got here I was one of 10 women in a class of 160. I also stood out when I joined the faculty,” she said. “Now the classes are about 50-50 men and women, and students and our faculty are much more diverse in many ways.” Different backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences have made the school stronger, she said, and it has been gratifying to see that.
White said the school also teaches and nurtures students in a more comprehensive way than it did when she arrived. Rather than just excellent clinical training, she noted, students also can get more emotional and financial support.
“I think we also do better teaching how to keep learning,” she said, “which is so important because dentistry keeps changing.”
White also has made her mark nationally in dentistry and dental education, often through professional associations. In her last full week at UMKC, she jetted off to South Carolina for a board meeting of the national Academy of General Dentistry, which she served in many roles leading up to being its president in 2020.
“It’s our first in-person board meeting in a year and a half,” she said. “I was the academy’s pandemic president, and my year as past president will be up in November.”
The pandemic also presented great challenges at the school, and White was an integral part of then-Dean Marsha Pyle’s management team.
“We thought it was difficult closing the school’s clinics,” she said. “We found out if was even more challenging to re-open,” juggling everything from supply chains and new safety equipment and protocols to resuming patient care and hands-on student learning.
White said she and her husband, Jerry White, a now-retired engineer for Black & Veatch, have always tried to focus on what needs to be done in the day ahead, and to stop and celebrate their victories and achievements at the end of each week. That approach has served them well, she said, even during a pandemic.
A silver lining to fulfilling school functions during her Academy of General Dentistry presidency, she said, was that Lance Godley, D.D.S., took on some duties well before White retired.
“Dean Pyle asked Dr. Godley to do more, to help me while I was president,” White said, “so he’s the perfect person to take over” as interim associate dean of clinical programs.
And, White said, the school might not have seen the last of her.
“I want to take plenty of time away and let everything settle in. But I might consider teaching again, or doing some fundraising for the school,” she said. “They say you have to friend-raise before you can fund-raise, and I’ve made a lot of friends and contacts over the years.”
Find photo highlights from her time at the School of Dentistry here.