Filling a Void

Dentist for Southeast villages killed in bicycle accident

Posted: Sunday, May 20, 2007

On a clear day from his dental office at the Kake Health Center, Dr. Stan Oldak would gaze across Chatham Strait to Baranof Island. On his left was Keku Strait and Kuiu Island. To his right, lay Frederick Sound.

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It was a long way from his other pediatric practice in the heart of Manhattan.

"Once he finished for the day, he would call his friends in New York," said Mary Vincent, a physician assistant in Kake. "And I heard him say once, 'You know, this is the most beautiful view from a dental office of anywhere in the world.'"

Oldak began visiting Southeast Alaska in 2001 for eight weeks of the year as part of the specialty pediatric dental program that the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium runs in conjunction with Denali KidCare.

He was the only dentist that many of the children in Kake, Hoonah and Yakutat have ever known. They won't be seeing him again.

Family, friends and patients on both ends of the country are mourning the curious, adventurous doctor who balanced his professional life with cycling, skiing, beading, kayaking, photography, cello and a never-ending list of pursuits.

Oldak, 59, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in the early morning of May 6, near mile 208 of a 400-kilometer cycling qualifier. He was struck from behind by a pickup truck at a left-hand curve at 1:40 a.m., on Interstate 90, two miles from Columbus, Texas.

Oldak was wearing all the proper reflective gear, his friends said. He needed to finish the leg by 5 a.m. to qualify for the prestigious Paris-Brest-Paris international road race.

No arrests have been made in the accident.

Oldak is survived by two adult children, Jason and Emily, and his ex-wife, Janis.

"It was a really big race for him, and he had this kind of boyish enthusiasm that propelled him," said Richard Silverstein, Oldak's friend since the 1980s. "I can just imagine how excited he was."

Roughly 700 bicyclists are killed by vehicles each year, according to the organizers of the annual Ride of Silence (www.rideofsilence.org) which staged events on May 16 at hundreds of locations around the country.

This year, Oldak - the president of the New York Cycling Club - was honored at three of those rides: in Waterloo, Iowa; Columbus, Texas; and New York's Central Park.

"If he put his mind to something it would be achieved," wrote his son, Jason Oldak, in a eulogy posted at www.nycc.org.

"He was remarkably gifted with his hands and his comprehension of the ways things work physically, and mentally, right brained and left. His passions and hobbies were endless. Life was always evolving for him and he brought that out in my sister and myself."

Oldak spent most his life in New York. He grew up in Brooklyn and studied dentistry at New York University. He spent eight years as a dentist in the U.S. Army, and eventually returned to Manhattan.

There, he ran a high-end pediatric practice with two other dentists near New York University. Many of their clients were the offspring of the rich and famous.

Oldak loved the culture of the big city. It fed his near-obsessive pursuit of knowledge. But he leapt at the chance to visit Alaska for the first time when SEARHC began its pediatric dentistry program in 2001.

It wasn't easy for him to leave his practice, but he made it work for two weeks at a time every three months.

"I tell people back home that this is one of the nicest things that's happened to me in my career as a pediatric dentist," Oldak told the Juneau Empire in May 2004.

"The only difference that I've found is that in New York the kids go 'ow' and in Hoonah the kids go 'owee,'" he said.

"He felt a social responsibility, and he knew what we were doing," said Tom Bornstein, the director of SEARHC's dental services department. "He bought into improving access to care for kids. And I think that part of it also was that he enjoyed travel and the adventure of it.

"I remember the first time he came back from Kake and had seen some black bears out there," Bornstein said. "Of course, after several years he had his own bear stories and his own plane stories just like the rest of us."

Oldak ate up the scenery, photographing everything he saw and collecting baskets and Native art, his friends said. He adapted quickly, and he was delighted to be accepted into the community.

"When they first started, lots of the kids needed a lot of dentistry and a lot of cavities needed to be filled," said Cynthia Valentine, Oldak's girlfriend and an orthodontic specialty assistant with SEARHC.

"He enjoyed the fact that every time he came to the villages, there was less and less immediate care needed, and more just preventive and continuing care."

"You can imagine when you've got a practice in New York what it involves to go out to Alaska a couple times a year, but his values trumped his comfort," Silverstein said.

"He felt like it was his professional obligation to try to help people who didn't have the opportunities that people have in areas that are well served by medicine."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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