Dr. Whiz steps down
“One of my favorite things that has occurred is that I am now teaching children of my former students.”
Gerard (Gary) Wieczkowski Jr. broke the mold when he became the only faculty member in the dental school to be named Rookie of the Year by students in 1970 at the beginning of his academic career and Educator of the Year and yearbook dedicatee by the graduating class of 2011 toward the end of his full-time service.
Within those bookended career honors, the associate professor emeritus, affectionately known as “Dr. Whiz” by his students, has influenced several generations in the classroom and clinic over a 42-year career. He officially stepped down from full-time teaching on New Year’s Day.
Wieczkowski entered the dental school as a student in 1964. In his senior year, he was class president and student representative on the search committee for the new dean—William Feagans—to replace the retiring James English.
Immediately after his graduation from the school in 1969, Wieczkowski became a clinical instructor in what was then known as the Department of Operative Dentistry on a teaching fellowship granted to him by Associate Dean Richard Powell.
“People—that’s the name of the game here in the dental school. Absolutely wonderful people back then, starting at the top,” says Wieczkowski. “Jim English really put (the dental school) on the map. It was kind of a provincial school before he came. Bill Feagans had a heart of gold and was an absolutely wonderful dean. And Dick Powell, who was the epitome of integrity—those three men were my idols, my mentors.”
He moved through the ranks to associate professor, tenured in 1976, and became chair of Operative Dentistry in 1983, serving until it was merged with four other departments into the Department of Restorative Dentistry in 1994. He served on many committees, including 15 years of service on the Judicial Council, 12 as faculty co-chair.
As a young teacher, Wieczkowski was put in charge of lecturing on a new restorative material at the time—composite resins. Those early materials were the beginning of what developed into the dental bonding movement of today.
During Wieczkowski’s tenure as department chair, the department developed a national and international reputation for its research. “The research was primarily focused on different aspects of the bonding technique and whether these composite resins strengthen teeth and whether these bonding agents really do bond to tooth structure,” he recalls. “In fact, we were the first group to do what’s called backscattered electron microscopy to study microleakage of the various materials. But credit must go to the operative department’s research ‘team’ that included Drs. Robert Joynt, Elaine Davis, Xin-yi Yu and Mr. Peter Bush.”
Wieczkowski stressed that the operative department was committed to excellent clinical teaching. “Probably what I’m most proud of during my tenure as chair is that we had 28 students do laboratory clinical research and most of them graduated with thesis honors. I still get Christmas cards and calls from these and other former students.”
Wieczkowski has published more than 30 scientific articles and has lectured around the world. Known as kind, compassionate and supportive to students, he calls teaching dental students the world’s greatest profession. His commitment to teaching sound clinical techniques and beneficence toward patients never wavered. In fact, he saved a patient’s life in 2004 when she collapsed inside the Squire Hall entrance. His quick action—first with manual CPR and then an automated external defibrillator—restarted her heart. “We have to do CPR training every two years, but I impress on students that you have to keep it fresh in your mind always. You don’t have time to think.”
An avid hockey fan, Wieczkowski initiated the Hanau Cup in 1975, an annual ice hockey game between dental school faculty and students. The trophy was made from his dental torch of the same name, which he painted silver and printed the winners’ names on it. “I was goalkeeper for our faculty and intramural teams in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and we won the UB intramural championship a few times, and definitely not because of great goalkeeping,” he recalls with a smile.
Wieczkowski was born and raised on Buffalo’s East Side. His family was in the baking business, operating the White Eagle Bakery in the Broadway Market for three generations. “My younger brother and I worked there. Even when I was teaching, I would work at the bakery during the crazy busy times at Easter,” he relates.
Married in 1965 to his high school sweetheart, Kathleen, when he was a dental student, the couple has three children: Jeffrey, an attorney; Neil, a writer; and Julie, an anthropology professor.
“I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world. I had loving parents, a wonderful wife, three great children and two beautiful grandkids,” he says. “And I would not trade my career for anything. It’s been a dream. If you asked me what would I rather do, I’d say let me do all this again.”
Dr. Whiz—who managed to secure the coolest UB email address, firstname.lastname@example.org—has stepped down but not out. He now works with juniors two days a week in the clinic. “One of my favorite things that has occurred is that I am now teaching children of my former students,” he says. “What we teach these kids is different than what we taught their moms and dads. We try to teach them to be lifelong learners.”
He is planning to follow this class into its senior year and then reassess his options. “I can’t imagine not being here. These kids have opened their eyes and ears and hearts to me. It’s just a great feeling. It’s challenging, but I’ve had the best job in the world.”