“She was unflappable,” said Paul Waitkus, the eldest son of Nancy Waitkus, D.D.S., who was recently remembered by fellow WVU dental school classmates at their 50th class reunion.
Growing up working in her family’s rural Webster County 4-H camp, young Nancy learned to use her natural talents early on. She started out working in the camp’s kitchen, was later a counselor and took on photography duties as well, taking group shots of the campers to sell as mementos. Her photography business earned college money and helped develop the “can do” spirit with which she was raised. When she came to WVU, the high school valedictorian majored in home economics, a typical course of study for young women in the late 1950s.
“Mom adored her brother John Paul, who was in dental school at the University of Maryland,” Paul said. “He said, ‘You’re bright, good with your hands. You could do this.’”
The senior undergrad completely changed her direction, completing all the necessary prerequisites to enter dental school. Her approach to her dental school education was similar to the way she took on her camp jobs: she did what she needed to do, with a smile on her face and an easygoing demeanor. As the first and only woman in the program, Nancy would sometimes encounter an unpleasant person who felt she had no business attending dental school, each of whom she would simply ignore.
“She let it roll off her like water off a duck’s back,” said Mark Waitkus, Nancy’s younger son.
Waitkus met her future husband, a WVU engineering student named Alexander Waitkus, when he ended up as a patient in her classmate’s student chair. The pair married during Nancy’s last semester. She practiced dentistry in Roanoke, Va., until the couple returned to Morgantown, where Alexander attended dental school. As an assistant clinical professor, Nancy taught at WVU for seven years in the late 60s and early 70s. A chair in the school’s pediatric clinic was later named in her honor.
Nancy practiced pediatric dentistry in a city clinic in Rochester, N.Y., while her husband continued his dental education. The pair eventually went into private practice near Richmond, Va. Nancy taught at the Medical College of Virginia for 20 years, until 1997.
Mark grew up with his mom caring for his teeth and said he still has a hard time visiting other dentists, due to his mother’s gentle and reassuring nature. Adored by her young patients, she routinely treated children other area dentists deemed too difficult to treat due to mental or physical challenges.
“There was a need for someone like my mom,” Mark said. “She was kind of a catch-all for patients other dentists didn’t know how to handle. She was this tiny woman who was patient enough to do it and would naturally put people at ease.”
Though Nancy was a true trailblazer and role model for girls with dreams of becoming dentists, she never viewed herself as one. Her family is quick to note she was a very humble, unassuming and hardworking person who never set out to make a feminist statement or be treated differently from anyone else.
“My mother was the embodiment of the highest ideals of 4-H: head, heart, hands and health,” Pamela Waitkus explained. “She was a mom, a wife and a dentist. She gave time to the schools and community to promote good oral health. I saw her do all of this and knew I could do anything I wanted to do.”
Nancy retired from dentistry in 1998 and passed away in early 2002 but left an indelible mark on the history of West Virginia University. Her family has established an annual scholarship in her memory. The award’s recipients will be female dentistry students from West Virginia, with preference given to Webster County natives.
Photo identifications: (top photo) Dr. Nancy Waitkus in 1963. (Bottom photo) The Waitkus family (left to right) Mark, Pamela, Paul and Alexander, stand near the pediatric clinic chair named for Nancy.
For more information: Leigh Limerick, Communications Specialist, 304-293-7087