My first major speaking job was at The Dawson Alumni Meeting in 2003. I had just published my first book, The Art of the Examination, and Joan Forest invited me to speak in Orlando. I was honored…but mostly I was nervous.
There must have been close to a thousand people in the audience. Joan told me to keep looking at her…and not to look at Pete. During my talk my eyes found Pete in the front row and that was the end of me. I thought I was terrible, Joan said I was fine and later that night at dinner Dr. Dawson gave me his seal of approval.
I was invited sit at the head of the table with Pete and his wife Jodie. For me the conversation was unforgettable. I considered Pete Dawson dentistry’s finest teacher and I was breaking bread with him and his inner circle…what a privilege. I told him that I had just finished Rick Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life. The book is a predominantly Christian book, and Pete was impressed that I, a Jewish dentist from the Northeast was reading it. Silently I thought to myself that the subject matter, purpose and meaning, is non-denominational. And this was long before purpose and meaning found it’s way to the business literature.
We spoke about his friendship with Dr. Morty Amsterdam and how he so enjoyed coming to Philadelphia. He spoke about L.D. Pankey. At one point he said something I will never forget, he said, “You know, L.D. was no fluke.” I asked what he meant. He told me, “L.D. really loved dentists and loved the dental profession. That is what drove him.”
To serve someone other than oneself is the highest order of meaning and purpose. Pete has been doing that through his writing and teaching for the past fifty years or more. When news of his passing came, tens of thousands of dentists all over the world wrote about how much he meant to their lives and careers. He carried the torch of meaningful comprehensive dentistry into the hearts and minds of dentists for as long as I can remember. Dr. Dawson was no fluke – he was a warrior for meaningful, excellent and dutiful dentistry.
Excellence, duty and meaning are the primary sources of Stoic joy. Not the surface cheerfulness and pleasure that we have come to know on social media. The essence of what he taught led to real inner happiness. I know it did for me.
Erik Erikson the developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychological development of human beings described the last tasks of adult development as generativity and keeper of the meaning. It seems as if Pete’s entire adult life was devoted to passing on the knowledge to younger dentists (from one generation to the next) and to never waver on the meaning of dentistry for patients and dental professionals. Erikson claimed that if one completed these tasks the reward would be a full life. Pete Dawson was the man in full, as we can tell by the people he touched and his wonderful family.
I carry coin in my wallet which reads, Memento Mori. The Stoics used that phrase to remind themselves that everyone is mortal. “You could leave life right now.” When the news of his passing came I was shocked. Joan Forest reported that Pete was prepared and yet on the Tuesday before he was still preparing lectures and writing a chapter for a new book. I guess that is what the keepers of meaning do right to the end. Dr. Dawson, to me, was the most admirable man that I have ever known in this profession. I know I share that sentiment with many.
Dentistry has changed since I first took Seminar I many years ago. The things I see on social media don’t resemble the way things were. Dentistry needs heroes like Pete Dawson. I am reminded of the last stanza of the Simon and Garfunkel song, Mrs. Robinson:
“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you – woo woo woo
What’s that you say Mrs. Robinson?
“Joltin Joe has left and gone away, hey hey hey.
Hey hey hey.