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The Impact of a Mentor

My first encounter with Dr. McCallum was my first day at the UAB School of Dentistry when he came to address us, the incoming freshman class, and greet us as we began our dental education. As was the standard practice of the day, he greeted us with the comment “take a look to your left and to your right and in four years one of you will be gone”. That was a little bit chilling, but it was the rest of his commentary that I never forgot. He said, “In four years you will have a DR in front of your name and that will be a great achievement, something you will and should be proud of, and you will make a good living from your work. But let me remind you of one important thing – your tuition covers only a small part of your education. The rest of your education is financed by the people of the state of Alabama as well as the citizens of the United States. And with that you will be part of a social contract with these people that gives you the privilege of practicing dentistry, and never forget this as you are entrusted with their care.” Personally, I swallowed that hook, line and sinker, and it has guided me my entire career. I might add one last comment he made that I also thought, while whimsical, was very important. He said, “As you are preparing yourself to leave for class, be sure to take a look in the mirror at yourself and have a good laugh.”

During dental school as a member of the student government association, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. McCallum and his egalitarian approach to the student body. I also worked with him on the admissions committee populated by eight faculty members and two dental students. He was the epitome of “management by walking around”. I remember vividly once in my junior year he poked his head in my operative cubby to see how I was doing, if I needed anything, etc. He was a very visible Dean. I think the most powerful part of his personality and legacy was that egalitarian sense. My senior year as the School of Dentistry SGA President I had to wrestle with him over a contentious problem, much to the horror of the faculty in the room. As I looked around the room I had the feeling that my dental career was doomed. By having a public disagreement with the Dean of the dental school, I could be sure that I would get my walking papers the next day. What happened at the end of the meeting was what really surprised me. He came to me as everyone was filing out the door and whispered in my ear to hang around a little bit and have a beer. We sat at his kitchen table for a couple of hours just talking about everything in general. I do not remember very many specifics, but what I do remember was his interest in me as a person and also how my classmates were doing. It was then that I think we became friends.

After finishing my residency at the University of North Carolina in orthodontics I join the visiting faculty in the UAB Department of Orthodontics with a particular focus on the coordination of orthodontics and orthognathic surgery. We worked closely on orthognathic surgery cases which was a new thing at the time, and along with doctors Matukas, Ballard, and Waite, we enjoyed the development of new techniques and services for patients that had a remarkable benefit for them. Even when Dr. McCallum became president of UAB, he was still actively engaged in surgical practice. On one of my visits to the University of North Carolina in the process of developing an orthognathic surgery textbook with Doctors Proffit and White, Dr. White, the past Dean of the UNC School of Dentistry and an oral maxillofacial surgeon himself asked me the question “is Scotty still doing surgery?”. When I replied that he indeed was, Dr. White exclaimed, “Why would he continue doing surgery while he has all the responsibilities of President of UAB?”. I replied that I thought it was a noble and healthy thing for the president of the University and the medical center to still be hands-on and periodically be humbled by patient care. I think the key to his success was his involvement in all aspects of what fell under his leadership.

Over the years as my wife and I had children and were raising them, we would often go to his favorite retreat, Navarre Beach, where I got to know his young sons and in a way become accepted into his circle of friends. His sons and their families are great friends of ours to this day.

Once he retired as a President of UAB, I began the habit of making every effort to stop by his house on the way home from work to have a glass of wine and just visit. He obviously did not have the personality to sit around very long, so along came his eight-year stint as Mayor of Vestavia Hills, Alabama. He threw me into a couple of jobs and committees serving the city, and once he retired for the last time, we would have the occasional lunch and evening visits together.

His influence on many was profound, as I am sure it has been for many other people. When I began working here in private practice and UAB, like all young practitioners and teachers there were times of frustration and disappointment, and he was reasonably sympathetic, but quick to say, “Keep your eye on the ball and remember what your purpose here is”.