The passage of time is a wondrous thing, and a life well lived is it’s own just reward. After a career spanning nearly four decades, Dr. James Zenk is setting aside the dentistry tools of his trade to enjoy a well-earned retirement. Zenk’s pending retirement had been in the works for about a year. “I served on the Board of Trustees for the American Dental Association from 2012 to 2016, and with being gone so long doing that service, people got used to not seeing me at the office,” Zenk said with a smile. “I came back, but I’ve developed arthritis in my hands. I’m not dangerous,” he added with a laugh, “but I just don’t have the confidence in my hands anymore.” Sooner or later, time catches up to everyone, and Zenk began to contemplate retiring later this year.
“We began the search to find a dentist to replace me, and we were fortunate to find one right away,” he said. Marissa Goplen began working at Family Dentistry in December of last year. Zenk said: “Marissa is confident and she is comfortable in her skills, so I thought I may as well move my retirement up a bit.” It turned out to be perfect timing, as Family Dentistry will soon be moving to a new location in the Fiesta Square complex.
“The move to the new building brings with it new staff, new team mates, and a new location. It really is the perfect time for me to exit and let them continue to move forward,” Zenk said. A little over a year and a half ago, Zenk sold Family Dentistry to fellow dentists Dr. Keith Olson, Dr. Matt Vaughan, and Ashley Jo Patton. “They’ve been kind enough to let me work for them! It’s kind of funny because Ashley Jo is the daughter of my first employee, Nancy Hendrickson. So her daughter is one of my bosses!” Zenk said.
Zenk is a home-grown Monte native, having graduated from Montevideo High School in 1969. He then went on to attend the University of Minnesota, graduating from its School of Dentistry in 1979. Zenk’s interest in dentistry developed while he was at the University. “I wanted to do something in the health profession and health finances. I also liked science. Dentistry was a really good fit, because you could own your own business, call your own shots, set your own hours, and hire the people you wanted on your team,” he said. After graduating from the U of M, he did two stints as a dental associate: one in New Prague, and also a year in Windom. Zenk, who had married his high school sweetheart, Sonja, said: “I liked being in a small town, and I often wondered why we weren’t in our own small hometown.” Opportunity knocked one Thanksgiving when the owner of the newly built East Acres office complex in Montevideo invited Zenk to set up a practice in his building. Zenk accepted, and on March 1, 1981, Montevideo Family Dentistry opened its doors.
“As I mentioned previously, Nancy Hendrickson was my first employee; it was just the two of us, and she is still my certified assistant,” Zenk said. For the past 10 years, Zenk has been a volunteer teacher at Rice Dental Clinic in Willmar. “I enjoy teaching and giving something back to the profession. The students I teach are seniors. He said: “They know how to do the work; sometimes they just need advice, help, and some encouragement.” Zenk plans to continue teaching after he officially retires from day-to-day duties at the office. “I like teaching,” he said, “it keeps me involved in the profession!”
In his 38 years as a dentist, perhaps nothing amazes Zenk more than advances in dental technology. “When we first started, we wrote everything on paper. Then, the first computer programs for dentistry came out. Now everything is digital, including X-rays,” he said. Zenk sees technology playing an ever larger role in the future of dentistry. He said: “A lot of crowns and restorations are currently made with 3D printing technology. As costs come down, those services will be offered more often. 3D printing will transform dentistry.”
Zenk does harbor concerns for the future of dentistry in rural areas. “You have to wonder if smaller towns will be able to retain their dentists. There is no shortage of dentists, however. They have to be convinced to leave the Cities and practice in our rural communities. “What needs to be done is to convince our rural students to become dentists. We would have a little better chance of getting them back if they come from a rural background,” he said.
Zenk is looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren once he retires. “Sonja and I have nine grandkids: four in Monte, four in Glenwood, and one in the Cities. We live in Monte, have a cabin at Minnewaska, and I teach in the Cities; it works out good for spending time with them!”
More than anything else, Zenk is very grateful for having the opportunity to serve his hometown community for the past 38 years. “I am thankful for being able to work with such wonderful patients and staff over the years. It’s been fun watching our office grow from one employee to where we are today. I am so thankful to everyone,” he said. Zenk’s last official day at the office will be on March 26, and a retirement party in his honor has been planned for April 2 at Talking Waters from 4- 7 p.m.