Photo courtesy of college archives 
Russell Wagner graduated from the dental school within the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco in the spring of 1931. Shortly thereafter, he made his first trip to Seward.

Photo courtesy of college archives Russell Wagner graduated from the dental school within the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco in the spring of 1931. Shortly thereafter, he made his first trip to Seward.

When the Kenai had just one full-time Dentist, Part 2

Part One discussed how Dr. Russell Wagner, the Kenai Peninsula’s only full-time dentist in 1960.

By Clark Fair

For the Peninsula Clarion

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Part One discussed how Dr. Russell Wagner, the Kenai Peninsula’s only full-time dentist in 1960, had assisted my newcomer father, Dr. Calvin Fair, in his attempt to establish a dental practice of his own after his discharge from the U.S. Army. Wagner had begun his practice in Seward in April 1934, just as Dr. Avery Roberts was moving to Kodiak, and just before Dr. Robert Livie headed to Southeast Alaska.

Even though Dr. Wagner was the peninsula’s only full-time dentist in 1960, there had been, in the years just prior to this time, two other clear options.

The first alternative had been semi-retired Clayton Armstrong Pollard, who in 1946 had closed his own Anchorage dental office to move his family onto a farm in Kasilof. There, Doc Pollard did not seek out patients; they sought him. Whenever they appeared, he abandoned his farm chores, washed up, donned his dental smock, and — occasionally accompanied by a lingering smell of livestock — brought the patients to his old dental chair and his foot-powered drill in the family’s front room.

Once, in 1940 when the Pollards were spending only summers on the farm, Archie McLane of Kasilof took an Outside visitor with a toothache up the road to see Doc Pollard. The dentist was out in the barn shoeing a horse when they arrived.

Dr. Pollard died in March 1960, one month before my father wrote Dr. Wagner to ask about peninsula dentistry opportunities.

The second alternative was Anchorage dentist Lloyd Jones, who periodically flew his single-engine plane south to work out of temporary offices in Kenai and Homer. When Dr. Fair began his own practice, he operated initially out of Dr. Jones’s temporary office in Anchor Trailer Park in Kenai. Dr. Jones henceforth practiced only in Anchorage.

Before Dr. Fair set up shop, some folks needing dental work waited for trips Outside to visit a dentist, but for most peninsula residents Wagner was, quite simply, the most convenient choice.

One year before Wagner moved his dental practice from sprawling San Francisco to tiny Seward, someone who would change Wagner’s life moved there first.

Like Wagner, Alice Beryl Henney — Beryl to her friends — was born in 1908. After high school, she earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics from South Dakota State College and then began teaching in a South Dakota public school before attending Ohio University to complete a master’s degree. The Ohio Alumnus magazine of March 1, 1937, related what happened next:

“Beryl Henney … went to Seward, Alaska, in 1933 to teach home economics, but remained there to practice what she preached. She is now Mrs. Russell Wagner, wife of a Seward dentist.” The Argus-Leader newspaper from Sioux Falls, S.D., on Feb. 4, 1935, carried a wedding announcement about the young couple and their Seward nuptials.

Henney had taught secondary school in Seward during the 1933-34 and the 1934-35 school years. Afterward, she never returned to the classroom. By 1937, she was a mother as well as a wife, and, as did many professional women of that time, she exchanged her career for marital and social concerns.

When she died in Green Valley, Arizona, in April 1998, at the age of 90, her obituary said she had been a member of the Philanthropic Educational Association and the American Association of University Women. In Seward, she had been president of the Seward Women’s Club, a member of the local school board, and the first secretary-treasurer of the Guild of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

She also loved to dance and was considered an attractive woman. In a story related by longtime Seward resident Patricia Ray Williams (daughter of former mayor L.V. Ray) — in her biography “There’s a Freedom Here: My 100 Years in Alaska” — Beryl was dancing with Williams’ uncle, while Dr. Wagner “wouldn’t compete.”

More than one person acquainted with Dr. Wagner — longtime Seward newspaper publisher Beverly Dunham, for instance — described him as “taciturn.” And his personality does appear to have lacked the vibrancy of his wife’s. But in “Unga Island Girl,” author Jackie Benson Pels wrote that her mother, Ruth, who worked as an assistant for Wagner in the 1930s, said he had “an unpredictable sense of humor.”

“Ruth was sitting in the dental chair one evening,” wrote Pels, “replacing the removable button on a fresh white coat for him and a uniform for herself for the next day, when he said good night, preparing to leave the office. ‘Good night,’ Ruth responded absently, but Dr. Wagner insisted, ‘Say “Good night, Doctor.”’ Ruth bit her lip and kept silent, and he cranked the chair up, saying again, ‘Say “Good night, Doctor.”’ Each time she refused he cranked the chair higher until finally, laughing in defeat, he left her there to climb down on her own.”

A sense of humor is not the way everyone remembers Dr. Wagner, however.

“I hate to say this,” said Dunham, “but he was not a very good dentist. Kids absolutely hated him. I mean, he slapped kids if they acted up. He was mean, and kids were just terrified of him.” On the other hand, she added, “I went to him myself, and he was okay. He didn’t slap me.”

Pels remembers her own visits to Wagner quite differently: “We loved him,” she said, adding that her family continued to go to Wagner even after moving to the central peninsula. “Those choking-on-dust drives from Kenai for regular appointments were so worth it,” she wrote. “And it’s only now, seven decades later, that those early fillings are starting to go.”

While Dunham said what she remembered most about Wagner was his “hairy arms, almost ape like,” Pat Erickson, the daughter of Patricia Ray Williams, recalled his skillful dental work and the clay animal pins that his wife Beryl, who was his assistant at the time, had made for children who had appointments with him.

On July 5, 1954, the first case of polio was diagnosed in Seward. At some point over the next few months, Dr. Wagner became one of more than 170 victims of the disease there. By the time my father began exploring peninsula dentistry prospects in early 1960, our family friend, Luella James of Seward, said Wagner had “never fully recovered” from the effects of the disease.

In 1964, Russell and Beryl Wagner traveled to Arizona for the wedding of their son Peter. In 1965, when Dr. Wagner retired after 31 years as a dentist in Seward, they moved to Arizona themselves. Russell died in 1985 at age 76, 13 years before Beryl, in Green Valley, Arizona.

In his long tenure away from Seward, however, it appears that he was neither soon forgotten by those in the Gateway City nor did he soon forget the people who had been close to him.

Nearly 40 years after Jackie Pels’ mother, Ruth, had worked for him, Ruth called a friend of hers in California — almost certainly Katherine Balderston, Wagner’s older sister who had moved from Seward to Contra Costa County in the late 1940s — and Dr. Wagner himself answered the phone. Four decades after leaving her high and dry in the dental chair, he instantly recognized her voice.

Dr. Russell Wagner (far left) shares a lunch in the Seward hospital cafeteria with Drs. Deisher, Isaak and Gentles in 1963, two years before Wagner’s retirement from dentistry. (Photo courtesy of the Resurrection Bay Historical Society)

Dr. Russell Wagner (far left) shares a lunch in the Seward hospital cafeteria with Drs. Deisher, Isaak and Gentles in 1963, two years before Wagner’s retirement from dentistry. (Photo courtesy of the Resurrection Bay Historical Society)

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