There was bad news late last month. The world's greatest dentist, after practicing in the Lehigh Valley for 39 years, was hanging up his mouth mirror.
Following a long struggle to overcome leg injuries from an accident, Dr. Steve Sloane notified his patients that "certain impediments to my mobility have made it imperative that I get off my feet. This is something that I cannot delay any longer."
On Nov. 1, he said, he would be retiring.
I had proclaimed Sloane to be the world's greatest dentist back in 1993, because of the miracles he performed. (It's amazing that I still have any teeth at all.) It also was because he was my main dentist, although his partner of 35 years, Dr. Ken Oppenheim, worked on me once or twice.
The office staff planned a little farewell party for Sloane just before his departure, and that is where I met Oppenheim's aunt, which is the good news part of this story.
Oppenheim (I'm confident I'll be able to proclaim him the world's greatest dentist before long) had been telling me about his aunt, Grace Kagan, and I was delighted to meet her. I also wanted to visit her at her Allentown home so I could learn more, and finally was able to do so this week, a month after her 90th birthday. "She is 90 years old," Oppenheim said, "but you will think you are talking to a 20-year-old."
It turned out he was not exaggerating. She's had a life filled with adventure and has met some of the world's most notable people, from Charles Lindbergh to famous politicians, including a couple of presidents.
Kagan grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and went to work in that city's famed Eastman Kodak plant. Shortly after World War II began, she enlisted in the Navy and took WAVES basic training in New York City. (WAVES was the contrived acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service; the Navy really only wanted to cook up a name reflecting ocean waves.)
After boot camp in the Bronx, Kagan headed for yeoman (administrative and clerical work) school at Stillwater, Okla., and then was assigned to the wartime "Navy Building" in the heart of Washington while the Pentagon was still under construction in 1942. She had to get a "top secret" clearance to handle classified documents there.
One day at work, she said, "there was Charles Lindbergh." He was visiting the Navy brass and Kagan was "requested" to get him some coffee. She declined because she was aware of Lindbergh's reputation for being cozy with Nazis before the war.
The request was switched to an order, "So I did it," she said. Kagan could not help but being impressed, however. "He was a very handsome man."
After her discharge, there was an opening at the nearby offices of the Commerce Department, which also required a top secret clearance. Her job there led to a job with a Washington television and radio industry newsletter. "Nobody had a television set then. This was in the 1940s," she recalled, but everybody knew TV was on its way and the job resulted in her getting one of the first TV sets, in 1950.
It was in that year that Kagan then began the most fascinating part of her career, going to work in the congressional offices next to the nation's Capitol building, and soon was a staffer with the all-powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxation and other financial dealings of the federal government.
Things got dicey when she went to San Francisco to help set up committee offices there. "Get out of town. We're going to kill all of you," said one welcoming message, apparently from somebody who did not like a committee probe into financial matters.
At one point in Washington, a congressman asked her to put in a call to the White House to see if the president could be reached. "Young lady, you're speaking to the president," said Harry Truman, who answered the phone. (I'm not sure how many presidents since then have done that.)
"I also met Henry Cabot Lodge. … He was very nice," Kagan said of the famous politician and diplomat. "Ronald Reagan, when he was a Democrat, came in [representing] the Screen Actors Guild. He was very handsome and very friendly."
She worked many years as staff assistant for Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills, regarded as the perhaps the most powerful politician in America because of his chairmanship of Ways and Means, until his uproarious drunken and public exploits with stripper Fanne Foxe. Despite the scandal, Kagan respected Mills' abilities as one of the five Ways and Means chairmen she worked for over the years. "He was the best of the five, the most effective … when it came to running the committee," she said.
"Oh, and I met Bill Clinton," Kagan said. That was back when he was the state attorney general in Arkansas. "I said in my mind, he's a child. He looked very young."
In the meantime, she married Harry in 1955 and they are still together, although Harry is ailing.
Two years ago, Kagan moved to the Lehigh Valley to be near family, including the man who soon may be regarded as the world's greatest dentist.
Happily, the region seems to agree with her. She is as youthful and energetic as ever.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.