How the Kappenmans built a Creighton dental legacy
The story of the Kappenman family and its generational relationship with the Creighton School of Dentistry begins in the 1940s with the big heart of a South Dakota farmer.
“My dad, James, spent his entire life ingraining in us kids how indebted we were to his brother, Lester, because he made it possible for my dad to go to dental school,” recalls Anlee Kappenman Rola, DDS’77. “We grew up thinking Uncle Lester was almost a god. My father never ever forgot, nor lost sight of the fact that it was because of Lester that he felt able to leave the family farm.”
World War II was a watershed event for the United States not only because it demonstrated the nation’s arrival as a global superpower but also because the rapid industrialization that underlay the war effort opened the eyes of millions to the possibility of life beyond the farm. So, when Steve Kappenman told his parents, John and Laura Kappenman, that he planned to enter dental school instead of helping manage the South Dakota family farm, they willingly assented. But when his brother, James, told them the same thing, alarm bells rang.
“Our Uncle Steve was a petit guy, and our grandparents didn’t think he would make a good farmer, so they let him go to Creighton,” recalls Jay Kappenman, DDS’87. “Dad, though, was very big and muscular and they figured that he would take over the farm, but dad insisted that he, too, wanted to go to dental school.”
A Generous Moment
Enter the legendary Uncle Lester, the third of the three Kappenman boys, who told his brother, James, to pursue his Creighton dream and to leave the family farm to him and his two sisters. It was a generous moment, and the beginning of a long story that has seen not just the original Steve and James Kappenman earn dental degrees from Creighton (DDS’43 and DDS’46, respectively), but also sons, Jay and Tim, DDS’87; daughters, Anlee, DDS’77, and Tami, DDS’93; grandson, Will, BS’08, DDS’12; and granddaughters, Jackie (Rola Schuler), BA’01, DDS’05, and Samantha, DDS’18. Jackie and Samantha today operate a joint practice at Dakota Dental. Jay, Tami and Will operate Kappenman Dental Clinic.
Nine dentists — all Kappenmans, all Creighton graduates and all practicing, or having practiced, in Sioux Falls. And don’t forget Kappenman sisters Mary Lana Breit and Kay Burkhardt, who are retired dental hygienists.
Death has taken its toll, as James died in 1991, his brother Steve in 2008, and Lester in 2010. Mother, Rosemary, died in 2016. Through it all, the Kappenmans have remained close.
A reverence for family, Tim says, explains why these Creighton-educated Kappenman brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, nieces, nephews and grandchildren remain in Sioux Falls.
“Family is very important to us,” says Tim. “Yeah, if my entire family moved someplace else, I would probably follow them. Otherwise, I have no intention of moving.”
They are a jolly and vociferous bunch, as demonstrated during a Zoom call when they gathered to relate the Kappenman-Creighton story. They all attended Creighton dental school, they laughed, “because we were accepted there.”
Acceptance at Creighton has been a multifaceted thing for the Kappenmans ever since their mother, Rosemary, who graduated from Creighton as a medical technologist, spotted their father on campus balancing peas on a teaspoon. James was naturally left-handed, which posed a challenge in the right-handed world of dentistry, and the pea balancing was an effort to develop right-handedness. It must have been a charming sight, for before long Rosemary had accepted James as her lifelong spouse.
Growing Up Kappenman
Dentistry, Anlee says, was an integral part of growing up Kappenman not just because it was their father’s profession but because he had the children sweeping floors, planting flowers and cleaning tables, all the way to helping “chairside.” Nothing seemed untoward when Anlee decided in 1973 that she would pursue the male-dominated profession of dentistry.
“In those days, a woman was still either a teacher or a nurse,” she says. “My dad made it seem very natural for me to go to dental school. It was not even a question. I didn't even think about being in such a minority until I got there, and other people made a big deal of it.”
As time would tell, Anlee proved among the superstars of her class, being awarded the School of Dentistry Alumni Merit Award in 2012. She is also a former member and president of the School of Dentistry Alumni Advisory Board.
Not every Kappenman who ended up pursuing dentistry intended to. Jay was training racehorses and planning to be a veterinarian. Tami was eyeing medical school and a career in ophthalmology but lost a bet when she took up her dad’s challenge to take the Dental Admission Test, which she fully expected to fail, but passed.
Jay signed up after a heart-to-heart talk with his dad.
“My dad called me up and said, ‘Jay, have you thought about doing dentistry?’ And I said, ‘Not really.’ But then he says, ‘Well, let’s look at the situation. You’re married, you have a child, you don’t have a pot to pee in, so why don’t you think about starting dental school and then if you want to change, then go from there.’
“So, I started dental school and got about halfway through the semester and fell in love with it. I never looked back. But it was definitely not a nudge, it was more of a push.”
Fullness of the Creighton experience
Like so many others, the Kappenmans reflect affectionately on their years at Creighton. Tami, who was a junior when her father died in October 1991, recalls the support and sympathy she received from faculty.
Tim recalls coming down with fatigue-inducing mononucleosis during the Thanksgiving and Christmas of his sophomore year.
“I walked into the dean of the dental school, Dr. Gerald Brundo, and asked him what a person did who was unable to take finals? Well, he sent me over to the dean of students, who was Dr. Ted Urban, who was a fantastic gentleman. He said, ‘Just tell your instructors you are leaving, and we’ll worry about it when you get back.’
“The next words out of his mouth illustrate what it meant to be a Creighton student. He said, ‘What time do you want me to pick you up in the morning to take you home?’ He was going to take a day out of his life to drive me home to Sioux Falls. Creighton truly was a family.”
It was only after his own children began attending Creighton that Jay Kappenman said he fully realized the fullness of the Creighton experience. In his day, he says, the dental school sat apart from the main campus, which caused some separation from everyday Creighton life.
“It’s kind of like taking First Communion,” Jay says. “It’s only the second time around, with your kids, that you fully understand it. So, when my kids went as undergraduates to Creighton, I realized fully how amazing the Creighton experience is.”
This Creighton philosophy of “family,” the Kappenmans say, has carried over to their dental practices.
“I truly believe that our patients are our family, and in that I speak for all of us,” Jay says. “It isn’t a business. We all loved practicing dentistry. Our patients are our family.”