An institution in her own right

August 27th, 2014

04features-jan-16Jan Steele has worked at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry longer than any other employee on record. The question on every colleague’s lips: What will the dental school do without her?

Every periodontist who has completed the specialty’s graduate program at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry knows Clinic Coordinator Jan Steele. Of those who are still in practice, there is not one who hasn’t undergone Steele’s kind yet tell-it-like-it-is tutelage.

She has worked at the dental school longer than any other employee in its 109-year history, at least as far back as current records can date. Steele’s first day at the college was Nov. 5, 1964, and at the end of August — two months shy of 50 years — she will retire.

Her name is synonymous with graduate periodontics. On any given day, if Steele isn’t buzzing around the clinic guiding residents with IV placement or monitoring patients’ vitals during sedation, she’s planted at her desk, stocking up on supplies as classical music floats from the computer speakers.

Steele, a registered nurse, is an anomaly in today’s world of postgraduate periodontics.

“A nurse in a dental environment is very rare. As a result, Jan is acutely aware of the connection between the mouth and the rest of the body,” says Dr. Jacqueline Plemons, professor in periodontics, who first met Steele as a resident 28 years ago. “She helps the residents keep that in mind as they manage their patients, and she’s a safety net with those who are medically compromised. That sets our department apart from periodontics programs across the nation.”

There are not many people who have been affiliated with TAMBCD longer than Dr. Terry Rees. He entered the graduate periodontics program in 1966. Steele, then the secretary, chief clinic administrator and nurse, had already been at the college for two years.

“Jan was very much in charge,” says Rees, director of stomatology. In the first-floor clinic where oral and maxillofacial surgery now resides, 12 residents vied for control of four surgical chairs.

“There was a constant competition for those four chairs,” Rees says. “Jan managed that and kept that under control — and kept all of us under control.”

Steele has proven consistent over the years. She’s slight in build, but her presence is palpable. Through rectangular-rimmed navy glasses, her warm glance puts others at ease. Steele is calming yet candid — there is no second guessing where one stands with her. She is quick to give respect, and she expects it right back.

“When you come into a graduate program, you assume that you really are special,” says Rees, who graduated from the program in 1968. “Sometimes that means that you start to try to boss people around. Jan will very quickly set you aside and tell you that’s not the way it is.”


Periodontics chair Dr. Jeffrey Rossmann recognizes Jan Steele during the Aug. 1 Merritt lectureship reception.

In 1984, Rees returned to the dental school to create the Stomatology Center. While some things never change — Steele laid out the clinic rules to Rees as a resident, and when he came back as a faculty member, she promptly told him the rules again — the dynamic of the relationship has evolved to that of co-worker and friend.

Over the decades, Steele has made the same transition with dozens of clinical and part-time faculty, many of whom recall her as a mother figure during their residencies.

“She took us under her wing,” says Dr. Deborah Foyle, now clinical assistant professor in periodontics, who completed her residency in 2005. “You immediately feel that she is your friend.”

Second-year resident Dr. John Tunnell began working with Steele in summer 2013. Tunnell and his two classmates received their dental degrees at other institutions, and Steele has been instrumental in their adjustment to TAMBCD.

“She has our back. She has everyone’s back,” says Tunnell. “She is like the oil that keeps the machine running.”

It’s quiet in the general dentistry clinic on the third floor, one of those rare times when there are no students on campus. The lull has given Scott Steele, dental dispensing technician, some extra time to catch up on inventory — and talk about his mom.

“She instilled in me a work ethic immediately; 50 years in one place says a lot,” he says. “Having been there and seen the periodontics program nearly from the beginning, she really knows where it’s come from and where it’s heading, and the things that are involved in it.”

Scott Steele has been working at the dental school for five years, but remembers trips to the college when the dental chair trays were still round. It made a perfect steering wheel for a little boy with a vivid imagination and love of trucks.

In his infant years, his mom had an apartment on Gaston Avenue. She heard about the opening in the periodontics department and applied. Steele didn’t enjoy working evenings and weekends as a hospital floor nurse with a baby at home, and this would give her the opportunity to use her skills in a different health care setting.

It’s been nearly three decades since Steele finished raising Scott, and she’s still here. It’s not that she had to stay — it’s just that she wanted to.

“I like working with the younger generation,” says Steele. “They have lots of energy and ideas, and they’re fun to be around.”

There can be tension, too.

“Residents get frustrated, they get antsy, they get edgy,” Steele says. “It’s not directed toward us necessarily. You have to really take that into consideration; it’s not a personal thing. I’ve often said I felt like a glorified den mother trying to keep everybody calm.

“It’s a better role, being a mother figure, trying to look out for them, trying to keep them out of trouble.”

Curriculum in the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene requires students to complete a periodontics rotation. In her role as clinic coordinator, Assistant Professor Cherri Kading schedules dental hygiene students to shadow periodontics residents during surgery. In the thick of it all is Steele, always at her post in the first-floor clinic that wends along Hall Street, replete with windows.

On more than one occasion, Kading has overheard the practical advice Steele extends to the students: “You know girls, there’s nothing going on out there on Hall Street, so don’t be looking out the window,” she’ll banter.

“Jan just says it like it is,” says Kading. “You can’t help but love her. She doesn’t mince words. She just comes right out and says it.”

Kading knows she won’t just receive grade sheets from Steele after students’ rotations: a score of 1 for excellent, rarely given — Steele’s mantra is that there is always room to grow — 2 for average and 3 for needs improvement.

“Jan tells me when the students do fabulously wonderful, and she’ll also tell me when the students are maybe not as interested in that rotation as they should be,” Kading says. “I always get honest feedback from her.”


Steele’s three-walled office opens up to the graduate periodontics clinic.

Steele has a similar recall with dental students.

“Jan is very aware of the different people that come through the clinic,” says Dr. Jeffrey Rossmann, periodontics chair. “She remembers them, and I’ll ask her about students a year later when they start applying for residencies. She generally has an insightful comment to add.”

On Aug. 1, Steele attended the college’s Arthur Merritt reception as she has every summer for 42 years. This year’s pre-lectureship soiree was at the Dallas Petroleum Club, and a surprise was in store. In front of an audience of more than 150 invited guests, Rossmann recognized Steele for her half-century of contributions to the college.

Come 2015, it’s quite possible Steele will once again attend the annual event, or at the very least, that residents, faculty and alumni will coax her into making an appearance. It just wouldn’t be the same without her.

“We all have people in our background that have had an influence, especially during our residencies, which are high stress times,” says Rossmann, “but Jan has taught more of them than anyone in the history of the program. She’s been a rock.”

— Jennifer Fuentes