By Ellie Amador
When it opened in 1977, the Dunn Dental Building was state-of-the-art. Thirty years later, not so much. Inadequate funding and shifting priorities left the building with rusty ceilings and leaky pipes. The 1970s-era dental equipment was still in use, and faculty positions were vacant. The South’s oldest dental school was no longer a point of pride.
Enter Winfield Dunn, former Tennessee governor and namesake of the UT Health Science Center College of Dentistry’s teaching facility. Dunn says he was “distraught, concerned, upset, and, frankly, a little angry.
“I was angry at myself for having not paid more attention,” he explains. “Furthermore, I felt that our state had failed in its obligation to such an incredibly important institution.”
Dunn, a 1955 alumnus of the school, accepted responsibility as honorary chairman for the college’s capital campaign. He joined chairman Philip Wenk, president of Delta Dental of Tennessee and 1977 UT graduate, and then-chancellor Pat Wall in a leadership team assembled by Dr. Joe Johnson, UT president emeritus.
“I think this group that came together under Joe Johnson’s encouragement has got the engine purring,” Dunn says. By June 2010, the campaign had raised more than $16 million, surpassing its $15-million goal, and there were no plans to stop.
Dunn left his dental practice in Memphis when he was elected governor in 1971. In recent years, he had left public life—until hopping on board the campaign with passion and drive.
“He was totally committed from the start, but no one realized he would jump in with both feet,” Wall says of Dunn. At age 83, Dunn “is an extraordinarily distinguished and eloquent gentleman,” says Wall. “He would get up to speak and the whole room would hush.
“He gave the campaign great credibility. He is an icon in the profession of dentistry in Tennessee, and probably ninety percent of the people we called upon went to school in the building that was named for him.”
Having his name on the building was motivation, Dunn says. “I never felt I deserved to have that honor to begin with, but I have always been proud to be associated with the program.”
The college is the state’s only public dental school. Seventy-five percent of dentists practicing in Tennessee are UT graduates, and clinics and outreach efforts provide more than 40,800 patient visits each year.
The fundraising effort has earned widespread support, including recognition of the program’s needs by Governor Phil Bredesen and the state legislature. That recognition—and some persistent nudging by Dunn—was instrumental in a $1-million commitment from the state.
The campaign has funded much-needed upgrades and faculty enrichment, but continued support is critical—especially from alumni, Dunn says. “We must remember the source of our success. Yes, we earned it, but not by ourselves. We have a tremendous opportunity to offer to future generations what we’ve been privileged to enjoy.”
Phase I of the Dunn Dental Building overhaul included a floor-to-ceiling renovation of the clinical area and improvements to pediatric spaces and faculty offices. Phase II, now underway, includes completion of a cutting-edge research lab and additional work on the dental clinic.
“I’m grateful I’ve had an opportunity to participate, and I do feel it has given me a little satisfaction to give back to an institution that’s given me so much,” Dunn says. “I truly have appreciated the opportunity to be reconnected to my profession. That probably is my reward for having been involved.”