Where do you begin when telling the life story of Chris Keszler? Before delving into the finer points of his life, consider this:
- He could be the oldest practicing dentist in the country.
- He flew his own plane across the country to meetings and navigated the skies from 1968 to 2005.
- His body and mind are in terrific shape.
- He helped create numerous residential subdivisions in Lodi, including ones that contain some of Lodi's most upscale residences.
After more than six decades of cleaning teeth, filling cavities and stressing the importance of flossing, the 90-year-old dentist will see patients for the last time this week. Keszler, who started practicing dentistry in 1947, is handing over his practice to Lance Turner, who will see patients at the office located at 816 W. Lodi Ave.
Sitting at a kitchen table in his sprawling home on Lodi Avenue, Keszler reminisced about his life as the April breeze rustled the leaves of the rosebushes on his back patio. His hair is thin in texture, but not in coverage. His soulful brown eyes hide behind thinly-framed reading glasses.
His hands are steady and his mind sharp. Keszler's body is still strong and capable, something he credits to his years practicing dentistry standing up, instead of sitting hunched over his patients.
Not surprisingly, he still has as many teeth as when he became a dentist nearly 60 years ago.
"Flossing is really important," he said. "People don't like to do it, but they need to every day."
Longevity also is in Keszler's bloodline. Both of his parents lived past 90, and he has a 94-year-old brother and a 96-year-old sister.
Oldest practicing dentist?
Turner believes Keszler is the oldest practicing dentist in the country, but it can't be confirmed by the American Dental Association because they don't track the ages of dentists in their national database.
While his status as oldest dentist in America is up for debate, his patients and co-workers are in agreement when it comes to his genuine nature and kind demeanor.
"I never waited a long time for an appointment and he is a pleasant individual," said Tom Sakoda, who has been a patient of Keszler's since the 1950s.
"He always treated me fairly and explains everything so there are no doubts," he added.
He added that whenever Keszler recommended someone for specialty work, the endorsement put him at ease.
"His patients and their kids all come back," said Jeanne Paoletti, Keszler's bookkeeper since 1974. "It's like, 'If mom and dad went there, I'll go there too.'"
His assistant for the last 15 years echoed the praise.
"He's pleasant to work with; there is no stress," said Kristine Arp. "I knew right away that he would be easy to work with."
An evolving industry
Chris Keszler at a glance— Started practicing dentistry in 1947 after getting out of the Army, where he served as a surgeon during World War II.
— He graduated from dental school at University of the Pacific.
— He built his first office at 300 W. Lodi Ave. because there were no offices to inhabit.
— Keszler served in the Air Force during the Korean War before returning to Lodi.
— He started a new office when he returned and joined the Academy of Dentistry International. He traveled and helped educate dentists around the world.
— He noticed a lack of housing in Lodi and began purchasing land in the 1950s. He started with 10 acres and gradually expanded over the years.
— He was instrumental in the development of the Sunwest, Glenhurst, Kristmont Acres and Bridgetown subdivisions. He said he found time to take care of it between his lunch hours and days off.
— He obtained his pilot's license in 1968 and flew regularly until 2005.
Keszler has seen vast improvements in the dental field during his life, and he said one of the most important is the high-speed dentist's drill. When he started dentistry after World War II, a belt-driven drill with an electric motor was the common tool used to bore into teeth before they could be filled and capped.
The speed of the drills was about 3,000 revolutions per minute. Modern drills go about 400,000 revolutions per minute.
The advent of the high-speed drill made work more efficient, he said. The improved technology with X-rays assisted in removing guesswork from the field and enabled dentists to better serve their patients, he said.
But the biggest change he witnessed was in the rise of aesthetic dentistry, he said. While people still have cavities, the way they conceal them has changed. People are opting for a more natural look, he said.
"There is very little gold or silver showing to the public," he said.
Getting ready for retirement
At week's end, Keszler will see patients for the last time before beginning his retirement.
He plans to spend it traveling with his future wife, Genny Tonge. While there isn't an exact wedding date set, the couple said it would come sooner rather than later. They intend to visit Europe in the summer, he said.
Travel is nothing new to Keszler, who has set foot on every continent and flown over the North Pole. He obtained his pilot's license in 1968 and flew regularly to dental conferences and for pleasure until 2005. While he still feels physically capable to fly, he said the price of insurance because of his age would be too high to seriously consider it.
But for more than 35 years, he would take his late wife, LaVeta, who served as his office assistant, on the trips. The couple was married for 65 years.
He keeps a model of the Beechcraft plane he flew in his home. A picture of it in flight is located on his office wall.
Making Lodi lovable and livable
Besides caring for possibly millions of teeth and flying thousands of miles during his lifetime, Keszler also had a profound influence on residential communities around town. He purchased land that was used to develop unique homes in subdivisions around the area.
"He never built a tract home," said Paoletti.
Keszler helped develop communities around town and still has one off Harney Lane in the works. It's about two-thirds done, he said.
But starting in the 1950s, Keszler purchased land that would become a place where some of the most lavish homes in Lodi would be built.
Kristmont Acres, Sunwest and Bridgetowne are all subdivisions he helped develop.
By his estimation, he helped build between 10 and 15 homes a year during his peak. However, he said there were years that were slower than others and ones in which nothing was built.
He worked with family and friends to set up the subdivisions. He thanked John and Tina Graves, Gary Keszler, John Keszler Sr., John H. Keszler and Camy and Fred Baker for their help setting up communities around town.
The future of his practice
While Keszler is setting his dentist's drill down and taking off his latex gloves for the last time at the end of the week, his patients will not be left unattended.
Turner said he is looking forward to carrying forward with Keszler's legacy.
"He is a true gentleman who cares about his patients," he said. "He always would do what is right. It's an honor to continue what he started."