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Bonded by a Bowtie

As a 10-year-old, Kenny Oyer rode his bicycle with his “first love” securely tied onto the handlebars with kite string. That precious cargo: his clarinet. What began as a year of weekly lessons in the late 1940s became a lifetime passion.

“It’s become so much of the who-ness of me,” says Oyer, who in recent decades has struggled with dental care and, consequently, to play his clarinet. He turned to the Creighton University School of Dentistry for help in the 1970s, returning throughout the years for treatment.

Kenny BowtieWhen his longtime dentures began to fail, he returned to the school in 2016 to undergo a mandibular implant procedure with Theresa Rawalt, BS’12, DDS’17, who graduated from Creighton’s dental school on May 13.

“We engaged in our journey and we got along famously,” says Oyer. “She’s one of the bright lights in my life.”

Rawalt says denture patients were among her favorite patients at the School of Dentistry. The frequent appointments — from surgery to adjustments — added up to a lot of one-on-one time.

“It creates an environment where, while I’m sitting there working on him, we can chat about life. He’d always ask me questions about what I was doing and try to understand exactly why I was doing that. And likewise, I learned a lot from him.”

As a young man, Oyer took his passion to the University of Michigan, where he was a music education major and member of the symphony band. One summer, he traveled with the band on a State Department-sponsored concert tour of the Soviet Union, the Middle East and Europe. After graduating, he served as an intelligence briefing officer in the U.S. Air Force, on bases in Guam and Nebraska. He left the military in 1967, earned a master’s degree, and worked as a medical librarian until 2012, when he retired after 36 years with Bergan Mercy Medical Center.

Through the meticulous attention he’s received from Rawalt, Oyer says he feels fully cared for at Creighton, where he has been a patient since 1978. “She knows everything she needs to know about me. Not just from the chin up. She knows my medication, my pulse rate,” says Oyer. “She’s aware of the total me.”

And likewise, Oyer got to know Rawalt, swapping family stories and advice throughout appointments.

Early on, she noticed that he always wore a bowtie. A natural extrovert, Oyer regularly performs as Kenny Bowtie with his clarinet at local libraries and hospitals. Rawalt did not forget this entertaining facet of Oyer’s life when it came time for her wedding last July. Each of the groomsmen wore a handmade bowtie, and an extra one was made for Oyer to add to his collection.

“That was very touching to me,” he says.

He is grateful for the dental work Rawalt has provided. “You wouldn’t believe what it’s like not to be able to enjoy a salad for 15 years,” he says. “It’s been a radical improvement in all aspects of my life. I think I can play another 40 years, if my lungs hold out.”

Rawalt was satisfied with the function of the dentures, but she says, “Kenny’s case wouldn’t be considered a success, in my books, if he wasn’t able to play his clarinet.”

She is taking that level of patient care to a practice in her hometown of Olathe, Kansas, following her graduation from Creighton. The momentous day for Rawalt also marks two special occasions for Oyer: his birthday and, as an invitee to Creighton’s commencement ceremonies, the chance to meet her family.

At commencement May 13, Oyer waited in the wings as Rawalt crossed the dais. As she exited the floor of the CenturyLink Center Omaha, there was Oyer, and the two embraced.

“I’m here for you!” Oyer exclaims.

“This is so great,” Rawalt replies. “I recognized you immediately. I am so happy you’re here. Happy birthday!”

A battery of cameras surrounded the two and Oyer straightened his trademark piece of neckwear. He asked if he looked alright and Rawalt says, as ever, he did. He handed her a graduation card.

“I’m so proud of you,” he says. “You’ll be part of my life forever.”

Rawalt insists the bond the two have formed is not unusual at Creighton.

“You see a lot of that at the dental school, of students getting to know their patients beyond a set of teeth,” she says.

A lifelong entertainer, Oyer is proud to share the limelight.

“She is the star of the show. I’m just the sideshow.”

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