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Family, faith, education: Remembering former Dental Dean Brundo

Oct 9, 2023
5 min Read
Rick Davis
Gerald Brundo DDS

Funeral Services for Gerald C. Brundo, DDS’69

Tuesday, Oct. 10
5-7 p.m.
Heafey Hoffmann Dworak Cutler West Center Chapel

Mass of Christian Burial:
Wednesday, Oct. 11
10 a.m.
St. John’s Church, Creighton Campus

Caring, compassionate, outgoing, loyal, smart, ethical, honest, calm under pressure and committed to excellence.

Those are just a few words and phrases family, friends and colleagues use to describe Gerald C. Brundo, DDS’69, professor emeritus of prosthodontics and dean emeritus of the Creighton School of Dentistry, who passed away on Sept. 29 in Omaha at the age of 80.

“And he was an excellent roller skater,” says longtime dental school colleague and classmate Frank Ayers, DDS’69.

Wait … what?

“Yes, he danced on roller skates at a student party,” explains Ayers. “He was really good. He could do twirls and everything. He did it to a record, and everyone cheered when he was done.”

Jerry Brundo loved life.

He made a big difference in guiding our dental school to its preeminence today, and in shaping the lives of so many of our dental students.
— Jill Wallen, BDS, Dean of the School of Dentistry

“It was a joy to be with him,” says Michael Kreekos, DDS, a faculty member in the prosthodontics department with Brundo. The two often carpooled to the dental school together. “The students liked working with the prosthodontics department. They would have so much fun.”

Indeed, comments by former students on his memorial page tell of a professor who was much respected and loved.

  • “I appreciate all you did for me while I was in dental school, and how you helped shape my life. You are a very special person!”
  • “Dr. Brundo was such a kind and patient professor. It was such a blessing to study under his guidance.”
  • “Dr. Brundo was one of the kindest and most helpful professors at Creighton. You could always tell how much he enjoyed taking his time to pass on knowledge to the next generations.”

Teaching was a passion for Brundo, along with providing quality, compassionate care for patients. He took the time to get to know his students – and was equally gracious with faculty and staff colleagues.

Gerald Brundo and dental faculty
Gerald Brundo, DDS’69, with fellow faculty members in the School of Dentistry simulation lab. From left are Richard Ronk, DDS’78; Brundo; Jim Kelly, BSCHM’00, DDS’04, MBA’10; and Michael Kreekos, DDS.

“He was right there on everybody’s level,” says Kreekos. “He would always stop to say hello and ask how you were doing. He genuinely cared.”

Jill Wallen, BDS, current dean of the dental school, says Brundo will always be remembered fondly for his 31 years of full-time service to the Creighton dental school, including his 10 years as dean from 1984 to 1994.

“He made a big difference in guiding our dental school to its preeminence today, and in shaping the lives of so many of our dental students,” Wallen says. “On behalf of dean emeriti Wayne Barkmeier, DDS, and Mark Latta, DMD, I offer my sincere condolences to all of those grieving his loss.”

Since retiring in 2015, Brundo continued to work part time in prosthodontics, making every effort to come in each Wednesday, even as he battled cancer. “If he was too fatigued, he would send me an email apologizing because he couldn’t make it in,” says Jim Kelly, BSCHM’00, DDS’04, MBA’10, a student of Brundo’s who now chairs the Department of Prosthodontics. “That was his dedication to and love for the school.”

Coming to Creighton

Brundo, born to Italian-American parents, grew up in New York before the family moved to California when he was in sixth grade. He met his future wife, Barbara Jane Mrzlak, of Columbus, Nebraska, while in dental school at Creighton. Mrzlak was studying elementary school education at Creighton at the time. She earned her degree and the two were married in 1968.

After earning his dental degree in 1969, Brundo and his wife moved to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he served in the United States Army for two years. In January 1970, their first child, Nicole, was born, followed by Tricia and Gerald Brundo II. All three children would eventually earn degrees from Creighton – Nicole, BA’92, JD’95; Tricia, BA’93, JD’96; and Gerald, BSBA’05.

Following his military service, Brundo joined the UCLA School of Dentistry faculty, rising to the rank of assistant dean of academic affairs, before returning to Creighton in 1984 as dean. (Read Brundo’s full obituary notice for a list of surviving family members, life details, honors, and to leave your comments.)

Brush with Fame

While attending St. Mark School in Venice, California, Brundo was classmates with Kathy Lennon of the famed Lennon Sisters, one of the longest-performing female vocal groups in American music history. The Lennon Sisters were stalwarts on The Lawrence Welk Show, debuting on the show in 1955 as children.

“Jerry always told us that he went to school with one of the Lennon Sisters,” recalls Ayers. “Then, four or five years after we graduated, I’m watching The Lawrence Welk Show, and I see Jerry out in the audience, on the dance floor, dancing with his daughter Tricia, who must have been 4 or 5 at the time. And the camera was right on them.”

Ayers immediately called his classmate Dennis Kommer, DDS’69, who also happened to be watching the show.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Ayers says. “We would see reruns on PBS every four or five years and would call him.”

Fit to be Tied

When he became dean of the Creighton dental school in 1984, Brundo initiated a dress code for all students, including a mandate that male students wear a tie in class. Brundo had to do the same as a student in the 1960s, and thought the practice helped elevate the profession.

“It didn’t go over well with all students,” Ayers says. But the dean maintained his sense of humor with the edict, keeping a not-so-attractive necktie in his desk drawer to rescue any forgetful students.

Aside from the dress code, Brundo had to navigate some difficult issues as dean, including declining applications and rising costs nationwide that forced the closure of some dental schools and the delicate issue of a student diagnosed with HIV during the height of the AIDS epidemic. (Read more about the latter challenge in Dr. Mark Taylor’s reflection below.)

Faith, Family, Cooking and Bluejay Basketball

Faith was important to Brundo and guided his life. He was especially drawn to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and those experiencing despair. He would stress to his children the importance of service to others and being generous with others. 

“Faith and family were everything to him,” says daughter Tricia Brundo Sharrar. “He would always tell us, ‘Give it to God’ and ‘God has a plan.’”

“He also was so proud of us children,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Sometimes embarrassingly proud.”

Brundo Family Dinners were a cherished monthly tradition, right up until earlier this year when he became sick with cancer. Throughout the years, Brundo would share his popular “Jerry’s Cookies” – a special Italian sugar cookie – with family, friends and colleagues, and enjoyed baking lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs, often inviting others over to dinner at his home.

Another family tradition was attending Creighton men’s basketball games. As a season ticketholder, on the rare occasion when he couldn’t make a game, he was determined to give the tickets to someone else – a student or colleague – who could fill in and cheer on his beloved Bluejays.

Legacy Continues

Brundo’s legacy lives on in the school he helped lead, and in the students he taught and mentored (including granddaughter Erin Goaley, who is a junior dental student). In his obituary, the family writes: Other than his family, he was happiest in his white coat at the Creighton dental school.

Gerald Brundo and Erin Goaley
Gerald Brundo, DDS’69, and his granddaughter, Erin Goaley, BS’21, a third-year dental student at Creighton.

“He just really, really loved working in the dental school,” Sharrar says.

At UCLA, he started a weekly afternoon tea for faculty, a tradition he brought with him to Creighton. After he died on Tuesday, Sept. 29, the Department of Prosthodontics convened on Wednesday for a 3 p.m. ceremonial tea in his honor.

“He lived the Jesuit charisms of caring for others,” says Kelly. “His DNA is Creighton through and through.”

Caring Leadership During a Difficult Time

By Mark Taylor, DDS

I worked with Gerald Brundo on a daily basis for almost 10 years. During that time, I grew to know him very well and admire him for his many fine qualities. He took a little bit of a chance on me when he named me to a dean’s position. At the time, I was pretty young, and I’ll always be grateful to him for his confidence and guidance. I served as his associate dean for clinical affairs and finance, and executive associate dean.

In October 1991, I was in Seattle, Washington, attending the American Dental Association annual meeting. After being there a day or two, I received a phone call in the evening from Jerry. He said, “Mark, I can’t tell you what this is about, but you need to get back to Omaha as soon as possible.” So, I took a flight very early the next morning back to Omaha.

When I returned, he told me the bad news. One of our students had revealed to us that he/she had an HIV infection.

You must remember that this was at a time when the world was scared to death regarding the transmission of HIV. As an example of the times we lived in, in October 1990, the cover of People magazine featured Kimberly Bergalis, a young woman with advanced AIDS and no known risk factors except her treatment by a dentist, Dr. David Acer, who later died from AIDS. Some have alleged that Acer infected Bergalis intentionally. All the news outlets carried stories on HIV/AIDS constantly. The public was afraid they could likely be infected with HIV by just going to the dentist.

Needless to say, having an HIV infected student who worked on patients at our school was a significant and challenging event. One of the questions in managing this situation was to decide whether or not to go public with this news. Going public would engender a media firestorm and keeping it private would perhaps allow us to avoid some of the spectacle. However, keeping the situation private was the wrong thing to do. Our patients who had been treated by the student had the right to know. In reality, everyone had the right to know what had happened. Jerry had the courage under very difficult circumstances, to do the right thing, so we went public.

Jerry orchestrated everything to handle that firestorm. We had to inform the media. We had to inform the student’s patients. We had to arrange HIV testing for our patients. We had to help and counsel our students, many of whom were afraid they would be infected. We had to inform the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sent representatives to our school. We had to ensure the privacy of the HIV student. We had to help the HIV student progress through the curriculum. This student eventually graduated with a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree under a specialized curriculum. We had to decide how to handle the media when they came to the school. I recall that cameras for at least KETV, KMTV and WOWT were in our waiting room.  There were several other items that needed attention too numerous to mention.

Jerry set up a call center in the administration suite for the public to call in and ask questions in the daytime and evening. I don’t recall for certain, but I think there were probably seven or eight faculty at a time taking calls. This call center, to my memory, probably went on for a week.  The responses had to be reasonably consistent and accurate, so many of these responses had to be scripted.

Our faculty and staff responded spectacularly to all of these challenges. I believe that was because we had very good people working at our school, who wanted the best for our school and our patients. I also believe that the faculty and staff responded at a high level because Dean Brundo’s leadership, intelligence, caring and steady hand were inspiring.

As I recall, the School of Dentistry was a daily story on all of the local television news stations for about a week. We were finally replaced by the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which was a huge national story partly because of the Anita Hill allegations.

Jerry and our school received much praise locally and nationally in dental circles because of how this crisis was handled. As a matter of fact, we later presented how the crisis was handled to a very large audience at the American Association of Dental Schools meeting in Boston.

I decided to tell this story because I think it exemplifies so many of Jerry’s inherent traits. Jerry was funny, sensitive to the needs of others, articulate, intelligent and was able to perform at a high level when the pressure was on. Jerry Brundo had the courage to do the right thing. I would like to tell the story sometime of how he managed our school through very difficult financial times when five other private schools were closed, but that can be another day.

Jerry has always been a very good friend and I will miss him. We shared many, many good times together.