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At the Staff Club (orginal Dental School building)

It was with a touch of joy and sadness that the University of Otago Dental Class of 1963 gathered in October for their final reunion. Sixty years after they were capped, 12 of the original graduating class of 45 assembled on the Dunedin campus one last time to reminisce about their student days.

Organising committee member Dr John Burford says he and his classmates had been getting together every two-to-five years since their first reunion in 1993, but their numbers have slowly dwindled. Twenty-one of the original class are still alive. The genesis for the reunions had come when he had met several classmates practicing in Auckland.

“We started almost by accident. I had just moved to Auckland and was at a Dental Association meeting talking to some of my former classmates and commented that it was 30 years since we had graduated and it was time we had a reunion. This idea proved popular and we held our first reunion 30 years ago in Rotorua.”

John receives a scroll to celebrate his reunion service

He says they did some detective work and were successful in finding classmates from around the world and most of them chose to attend.

For their final reunion one of their former classmates had made the trip from England, but sadly contracted salmonella poisoning on their stopover in Dubai and ended up spending the week of the reunion in Auckland Hospital.

John says several widows and other family members attended the final reunion. “We’ve become a bit of a family I guess and it’s good the people have a good attitude and we all come together and continue our friendship.”

As a student John initially boarded privately in Dunedin and married while completing his studies.

Scroll marking more than 60 years as classmates

After graduation he took what was meant to be a six-month contract in Greymouth. However, this grew into a 28-year stay in the West Coast town. Apart from Greymouth and Auckland he spent three years in the Canadian Arctic working in the city of Yellowknife, but also getting out amongst the First Nations and Inuit community and fixing their teeth.

John and his wife had six children, their daughter Vanessa Whittaker is a Senior Counsel (equivalent of NZ’s King’s Counsel) in Sydney and another daughter Melanie (Mel) Burford based in Bergen in Norway is the only New Zealander to win a Pulitzer Prize for Photography (2006). Her winning photograph was of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Now in his eighties, John is the last member of his class that is still practicing.

“I’ve limited my practice to things that are not commonly available and are not taught in the Dental School, so it’s been hard for me to find somebody to come in and continue my work.”

John has undertaken extensive specialist studies outside of New Zealand. He mainly does general orthodontics, which means he treats people with removable devices and emphasises the maintenance of existing teeth. He also treats people with jaw disorders and makes appliances for those with sleep apnoea and other means of maintaining the airway.

And how does the dental course of today compare with that of more than 60 years ago? “There seem to be far more bureaucratic limitations for dental students today. It seemed to be far more free and easy in our day. We just rolled up our sleeves, got stuck in and worked hard when we were studying.

“We were so lucky to have the legend of a Dean Sir John Walsh when we were studying. It’s nice to see that the Dental School building is named after him.”

One of the highlights for the group for their final reunion was having a tour of the new surgical wing at the School of Dentistry, which was guided by current staff.

“We were grateful and impressed by the cooperation of the senior academic members of the dental school in making our final reunion so enjoyable,” John says.

Jenny Scott and portrait of her father Professor John Walsh

The daughter of legendary Dental School Dean, Professor John Walsh, Jenny Scott, married Barry (now deceased), one of the members of the Dental Class of ’63. She says this was the last all male Dental class at the University. She says her father cared for all the students individually and set out to make them the best dentists and people they could be.

Jenny says her father said all relationships are based on a little TUG (tolerance, understanding and goodwill) and his four guiding principles were; service, cooperation, an open mind and things that challenge you the most give you a sense of achievement.

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