21 May Lakeland dental pioneer plans farewell – News – The Ledger
Harry Bopp will treat his final batch of children June 11 before retiring after 43 years. He established the first pediatric dental practice in Lakeland in 1976.
LAKELAND — Women who work in Dr. Harry Bopp’s dental office reverently describe him as “the children whisperer.”
As a pediatric dentist, Bopp has spent his career among children who would often rather be anywhere else than in his office. His longtime staff members say he exhibits an uncanny gift for convincing even the most tremulous children to sit pliantly and let him examine their mouths.
“Sometimes you wonder, ‘How do you do that?’ ” said clinical coordinator Robin Riley, an employee of 31 years. “He just knows how to make them feel at ease.”
“I think it’s his voice,” added Jeannette Murphy, a member of Bopp’s staff for 34 years. “It’s that low, calming voice, and it just calms them down.”
Bopp will treat his final batch of children June 11 before retiring after 43 years. Bopp, 72, will be remembered as a pioneer, having established the first specialty pediatric dental practice in Lakeland in 1976.
He calculates that he has performed some 200,000 checkups over the years. That means he has examined more than 4 million teeth.
While some dentists prefer to avoid treating children, Bopp has chosen to spend his career caring for young patients.
“It’s kind of a personality thing,” he said on a recent morning, sitting in his office and wearing a gold tie with a pattern of rabbits and carrots. “My personality was I enjoyed kids. I enjoyed playing with them and entertaining them. My whole philosophy’s been to try to make it like a playground where they get their teeth fixed.”
Bopp is selling his half of the South Lakeland practice to Dr. Aaron Scheps, who has been with the office since 2017. Dr. Jordan Tarver will continue with the practice, located just south of the Oakbridge shopping center.
Bopp, a Tampa native, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and studied dentistry at the University of Louisville because his home state had no dental schools in the late 1960s. He entered dentistry school without any specialty in mind.
“I was halfway through dental school,” he said. “We’d gone through the different rotations of different types of dentistry — periodontal, dentures, restorative, oral surgery — and I really wasn’t enjoying any of them. And then I went into the pediatric dentistry rotation and found that I just really enjoyed treating kids.”
Coming to Lakeland
Bopp completed his graduate pediatric dentistry training at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis and served two years in the U.S. Army as clinical director of children’s dentistry at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia. Upon returning to Florida, he sensed that Tampa had grown too congested and decided Lakeland would be the best place to launch his practice.
Bopp opened his solo office in August 1976 in a small space on Imperial Boulevard. Dr. William Cardman, a dentist who had started practicing two years earlier, had an office in the same building.
Cardman, who is still practicing, said Bopp treated his daughter for orthodontics. He said the patients who came to his office after seeing Bopp as children always had teeth in good condition.
“We were (building) partners for 25 years and had zero problems; we got along perfect,” Cardman said. “I don’t think there was ever a cross word between us. … He’s been nothing but a big plus for the dental community and the community as a whole.”
Bopp recalled that he had one patient on his first day, the son of his wife’s best friend. He attracted one more patient on his second day and two on his third.
As awareness of the specialized service spread, Bopp soon drew all the patients he could handle, including his daughters, Kelly and Courtney. Bopp said the typical patient has a first appointment at age 2 to 4, and most move on by age 16.
Bopp said he strives to put nervous or even terrified children at ease.
“I think we’re honest with them,” he said. “We explain things in their terms. We use terms like ‘Mr. Whistle’ with the air gun. We try to make it fun and make it painless, and I think the harder we work at making everything painless, the happier they are and the happier we are.”
Bopp said he sometimes detects nervousness from the parent of a patient. It usually turns out that the parent had an unpleasant childhood experience with a dentist.
“We find the younger they are, the better chance we have of catching them before they’ve had a bad story from someone else or a movie or something,” Bopp said. “I have dentist friends who tell me, ‘The people who come out of your office are my best patients because they’re not frightened. They haven’t had a bad experience.’ ”
Soon after opening his practice, Bopp decided he should emphasize the importance of dental health beyond just the children he saw as patients. He created what is now informally called the Tooth Fairy program, an educational initiative that sends a staff member to conduct presentations at local schools.
“My idea was that if we could get to children who don’t make it to dental offices and give them some education as to oral hygiene, good things to eat, bad things to eat, and do it in a fun way, we could have a true effect on the children,” Bopp said.
A series of employees have served as “tooth fairies” over the years, showing a short video that illustrates dental health and giving out toothbrushes and dental floss. Isabel Smith, who currently fills that role, visits more than 10,000 students a year, Bopp said.
Riley said Bopp holds an exalted status among many of his young patients.
“It’s like when the children see Mickey Mouse for the first time,” she said. “A lot of them look at him like that, that he’s this person who is just amazing.”
Riley recalled a woman who become a patient as a young girl and continued seeing Bopp when she was in her 30s and pregnant.
“He said, ‘Listen, once you have that baby, you have to stop coming here,’ ” Riley said. “She kept begging him to stay here. Now she brings her daughter.”
The practice has about 40 employees, and many staff members have children who are current or former patients. One employee, Jennifer Knight, became Bopp’s patient as a girl and now brings her children, ages 2 and 4, to see him.
Bopp said he has treated three generations in some families.
“Recently, I’ve had grandmothers come in, and they came when they were maybe 10 or 11 years of age and brought their children when they were mothers and now they’re bringing their grandchildren, and that is such a thrill,” Bopp said. “We take a picture with the child when they first come and give that to them. Moms save those, and I’ve had a number of kids come in who were 3- or 4-year-olds with pictures of their dad or mom with me 20 years ago.”
And Bopp said some of his former patients have grown up to become dentists.
Tough to leave
Bopp said he has delayed retirement for years because he still derives such fulfillment from his work.
“I love the patients; I love what I do,” he said. “What is that saying? ‘If you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life.’ I’ve been fortunate enough that’s exactly the way my life has been. It was really hard to come to that point to say, ‘OK, it’s time to retire.’ ”
Bopp began informing staff members of his plans in April. Debbie Fuson, the laboratory supervisor and an employee of 37 years, was on vacation when she received the call. Fuson said she was so upset she had to hand the phone to her boyfriend.
Leeona Molnar, another member of “the Bopp shop,” said it was obvious her boss agonized over the decision.
“He’s very sad and heartbroken,” said Molnar, a 25-year employee. “It’s kind of like he knows it’s time for him, however it’s something so hard for him to walk away from because it’s always been part of his life.”
Riley said Bopp often comes into the office even on his days off. She and other employees said they won’t be surprised to see him in the building even after he retires.
It’s not as if Bopp has no life outside of work. His office abounds with models of vintage cars, reflecting his avocation of collecting classic vehicles, mostly old Porsches. Bopp said he has entered cars in contests a few times and expects to do so more often in retirement.
The office also contains a framed photo and flag from Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, signed by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, reflecting Bopp’s fondness for golf.
In addition to playing golf more often, Bopp said he will have more time for bowling in retirement. He plans to do some traveling with his wife, Judy, and relishes being able to spend more time with his four grandchildren, ages 4 through 12.
Bopp said his trust in Schep’s abilities makes it easier for him to walk away from the practice.
“I feel confident my legacy will continue on like I left it,” he said. “I think when you decide to retire, you’ve got to find that right person to take your place and I think that’s what helped me to make that decision.”
Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.