Dan Tanita: Global Ambassador, Local Philanthropist

By Louise Knott Ahern

It is, of course, a quip. But friends and colleagues of Dr. Dan Tanita ’73 like to say that if you see this longtime Dugoni School of Dentistry volunteer headed your way, guard your wallet. Because the minute he leaves, you’ll discover you handed it over at some point in the conversation without even realizing it.

Tanita, a board member of both the Dugoni School Foundation and the Alumni Association, has earned a reputation over the past three decades of having the innate ability to raise more money for the dental school and other community service projects than five other people combined. From public schools to the local YMCA, Tanita is the go-to guy when a cause needs cash.

“When he comes to my side of the clinic, I know why he’s there, and it’s not to invite me to lunch,” laughed Tanita’s longtime friend, Dr. Bill van Dyk ’73. The two graduated from the Dugoni School of Dentistry together and purchased a dental practice in San Pablo, California, after van Dyk finished a three-year ROTC commitment to the U.S. Army. They’ve been business partners ever since. “He’s not at all pushy. I think that is also why he’s such a good dentist, ” says van Dyk. “It’s not a technique or something he developed; it’s his natural easygoing personality. He makes you feel as if you ought to do it because it’s a good cause.”

But joking aside, those same friends and colleagues say Tanita is successful at fundraising because he understands that money is only one piece of philanthropy. He also devotes his time to many causes. One of his most impactful projects, for example, is now in its 21st year—a free dental clinic inside Peres Elementary School in Richmond, California, where Tanita himself treats the children. What began with a Healthy Start grant and a few donated pieces of equipment is now a fully functional dental clinic that treats 300 children a year and is named after Tanita.

“He epitomizes what we in philanthropy call the three Ts: time, talent and treasure,” said Dr. Craig Yarborough ’80, associate dean for institutional advancement. “The easiest thing in philanthropy is the last one. Just throw money at it. But Dan will give everything in each of those areas.”

Most recently, that devotion of time and resources had an unexpected outcome—a prominent write-up of the Dugoni School of Dentistry in a Russian dental magazine and a supporting role for Dugoni School alumni in the creation of a professional association for Russian dentists. Yarborough, the former speaker of the house for the California Dental Association (CDA), recently returned from speaking at a seminar in Russia along with a colleague, Carrie Gordon, chief strategy officer for the CDA.

“It speaks to our reputation as a school,” Yarborough said. “We’re known for being a family and for our humanism, one of the virtues that all dental schools should have. It also shows how progressive the California Dental Association is. They were willing to meet with these people even though they had no connection with them. It’s just fascinating how our reputation continues to be extended.”

And it all started 18 years ago when Tanita, in typical fashion, said “yes” because someone asked him for a favor.

How It Started

In 2000, the Rotary Club in Richmond was looking for a local dentist to help host a visiting group of Russian dentists and dental clinic owners for a trip around Northern California. It was a rather routine professional exchange that the Rotary Club promotes internationally.

Tanita, of course, agreed to help. That one trip became an annual excursion, and over the years Tanita has recruited his friends and colleagues to speak to the group, give them tours of the Dugoni School of Dentistry and local dental practices and even join them on wine tastings in the Napa Valley.

“The Russians kept on contacting me, and every year they had another group of dentists who were interested in coming to San Francisco,” Tanita said. “We’ve given them different tours, taken them to the dental school and just tried to give them as much of an experience as we can.”

Last year, Tanita asked the California Dental Association to meet with the Russian group to discuss how the CDA works. Yarborough took part in the meeting, which was followed by an invitation for Yarborough and Gordon to speak in Russia at a seminar for Russian dentists.

And that’s where Yarborough discovered the magazine. The funny thing is, it’s possible no one would have even known that the Russian Dental Club magazine had featured the Dugoni School if Yarborough hadn’t had a little bit of extra time while packing to go home.

All attendees and speakers were given a conference swag bag, most of which Yarborough planned to throw away, including the magazine. It was too heavy to take with him, and it’s not like he could read it. It was in Russian. But a twinge of guilt—it was a beautiful publication that someone had obviously wanted him to see—made him decide to flip through it before throwing it away.

“And suddenly, I saw a picture of the dental school,” Yarborough said.

Though he couldn’t read the words, he could tell there was an entire, six-page article about the Dugoni School of Dentistry and the California Dental Association with photos.

“And Dan Tanita is the guy who brought these people to our school and to the CDA,” Yarborough said. “That’s just Dan. He has the time and talent to bring people together. Thanks to him, the private sector—especially Moscow dentists—will probably become associated with and follow the model of the CDA, which is full of leaders from Pacific, because of Art Dugoni’s vision.”

A Lifetime of Service

Though Tanita never seeks recognition for his many years of service, it has found him anyway. He’s been honored with dozens of major dental and service awards throughout his career.

In 2014, the Northern California section of the American College of Dentists honored Tanita with the Dr. Willard C. Fleming Meritorious Service Award in recognition of the Peres Elementary School dental clinic. That same project also earned him a James M. Pappenfus Award from the Contra Costa Dental Society, as well as a Bay Area Jefferson Award for outstanding community service.

The dental school has honored him as well with a Medallion of Distinction, the Alumni Association’s highest honor, which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the dental profession or their local community.

Tanita credits, in part, the Dugoni School of Dentistry’s humanistic approach for his devotion to service.

“The alumni develop a closeness and a loyalty to the school that is a lot stronger than at many other schools around the country, and that reflects Dr. Art Dugoni’s leadership,” Tanita said. “The identity of the school, the values and philosophies and the quality of the education reflect who he is as an individual, a leader and as the former dean. The quality of the people at the school and the commitment they have is so genuine and so passionate that once you get involved with them, it makes you more passionate yourself.”

Friends say it’s just who Tanita is. He became a dentist because he so enjoyed the family-like atmosphere at his childhood dentist’s office in Arizona that it seemed like a great career.

“Dan might be the most benevolent person I’ve met,” Yarborough said. “He is selfless and patient. Somehow, he unlocks the passion in other people.”

Tanita plans to continue working in private practice for a few more years, but even once he retires, he says he will stay involved with the community and the Dugoni School.

“I love the school so much,” he said. “I live very close by. I’m still on the Alumni Association board. If I can make a contribution, I’ll do that. I enjoy staying involved. I just want to see the school continue to stay at the top of its game.”

Louise Knott Ahern is an award-winning journalist, fiction writer, editor and writing coach, and is the founder of LKA Publishing in Williamston, MI.