PRESTONSBURG — At age 84, the man who has helped teach every graduate of the University of Kentucky's College of Dentistry since it was founded in 1962 — all 3,227 of them — is set to retire at the end of the month.
Dr. John R. Mink isn't sure how many mouths he has peered into during his 50-year career as a professor of pediatric dentistry at UK, but many of them were children in rural Kentucky getting free dental care.
Brandi Prather, a pediatric dentist in Somerset who studied under Mink, said she feels sorry for future students who won't benefit from his teaching.
"It's like the end of an era," Prather said. "I can't imagine pediatric dentistry without him as part of it."
Mink would have retired last month except for the chance to take part in one of his pet projects at UK: the mobile dental clinic that provides free dental care in rural parts of the state.
Mink was instrumental in efforts to start the clinic in the 1990s, and for at least the past 20 summers he has gone with other staffers and students to Eastern Kentucky and set up the 40-foot-long clinic to treat children and teens.
The clinic, which was built on a firetruck chassis and looks like a large recreational vehicle, is packed with three exam chairs and other equipment.
Mink finished this summer's stint in Prestonsburg on Thursday, with the help of dental assistant Santina Turner, who has worked with him for 30 years, and several students.
The team saw more than 100 patients in four weeks, he said.
On Wednesday, 13-year-old Charley Hinton had a cavity filled and a chipped tooth repaired. She left with a bright smile and a grateful mother.
"It's wonderful for everyone," Vanessa Hinton said of the program. "I love it."
Mink said he decided to pursue getting a clinic on wheels to serve rural areas of the state after a dean from a dental school in California asked him and others from UK to take part in a program to take dental care to villages in Greece and Israel many years ago.
"I came back to the States, I said, 'We need one of these,' " said Mink, a soft-spoken man who laughed at his inability to remember exactly how many years he has been going to Eastern Kentucky.
He helped line up donations for the mobile unit, which some have called the "Mink Mobile." He estimated the bus and equipment cost more than $250,000.
Mink and others started out taking the clinic to Eastern Kentucky, but the program was later expanded to include Western Kentucky.
The mobile dentistry units provide screening, treatment and prevention services to about 1,500 children and teens a year, according to Ann Blackford, a spokeswoman for the College of Dentistry. The program is free to children, but the college does bill Medicaid when possible.
The clinic does not provide orthodontic care that requires follow-up care, such as braces. Pulling teeth and fixing cavities account for most of its work.
The program is both a teaching tool and a way to serve children who might not get dental care otherwise. The college also has a mobile clinic in Lexington.
Mink graduated dental school at Indiana University in 1956 and taught at the school for a time before coming to UK in 1962. He was a founding faculty member when classes started that fall, and the first chair of the pediatric dentistry program.
He has seen changes in materials, equipment and techniques. Things he used to do routinely are now obsolete, Mink said.
But Prather said Mink's skills and steady hand didn't fade. He has a soothing manner that could calm a child having a meltdown, she said.
"It was like he was a little Santa or something," she said. "He definitely speaks to the kids in some way."
Another change during Mink's five decades is that more students are choosing pediatric dentistry as a specialty — something he helped drive.
Mink said he has seen improvement in access to dental care, but there are still many people in Kentucky who don't get to the dentist as they should because of a lack of money, insurance or Medicaid coverage.
"We still have a tremendous need," he said.
Mink said he still loves teaching and treating patients, but it's time to move on. He recently bought a new horse, a cross between a Thoroughbred and a quarter horse, and said he may name it Retirement.
Mink said he has worked long past the time most people retire because he loved his job.
"My opportunity to teach — that's the highlight of my career," he said this week.
He and his wife, Jo, had six children, so he also has grandchildren and great-grandchildren to chase.
Charlotte Haney, a former student of Mink's who is now a professor and director of the post-doctoral program in pediatric dentistry at UK, said Mink's influence will continue long after his retirement.
"He is an amazing man and will be impossible to replace," Haney said in a statement. "His philosophy of patient care will carry on in the thousands of dental students, pediatric dentistry residents, national and international dentists that he has influenced throughout the 50 years of his career."
The college also has an endowed chair named for Mink, in pediatric dentistry and oral health-service research, that will carry on his "commitment to improving the oral health of children, particularly in rural areas," the college said in a statement.