The Road Not Taken: A tribute to my father’s career choice

From the moment my father began working for the U.S. Army in Whittier, Alaska, in the fall of 1957, until he retired from his own practice in Soldotna in the fall of 1998, he was a dentist. Just over 40 years, beginning the year after he married my mother.

This four-decade period included the birth of his three children, the acquisition of a homestead, the building of a home, a founding membership in the Soldotna United Methodist Church, becoming a grandfather, and experiencing the beginning of a slow but steady decline in his health.

Forty years with his fingers and dental instruments inside people’s mouths. During the first year, I was born. During the fifth year, I became a homestead kid. I went through public school and college between years 8 and 25, and got married and had two children of my own by year 38.

For the first 40 years of my life, I saw my father professionally as a dentist. Period.

“Dr. Calvin M. Fair, D.D.S.” It was written on his professional letterhead, on the sign at his dental office, on the bills he sent to patients. He was “Cal” or “Calvin” or “Dad” to friends and family. (To college chums, he had been “Cab.” It took me years to get the joke.) To nearly everyone else, he was “Dr. Fair” or simply “Doc.”

He was highly respected in his work. For years after he retired, former patients would brag to me about the quality of the dental care they had received — how their old fillings or crowns remained intact and how their new dentists had praised Dad’s craftsmanship; how skillfully he had coaxed their children through cleanings and fillings; how he had tried to make them laugh or talk while their mouths were jammed with instruments that rinsed or suctioned, probed or drilled.

My dad the dentist: That’s what I knew from the moment I could understand what “going to work” meant. He rose early to go to the office. He worked late. He brought home paperwork. He had a small lab in our home so he could keep working, if necessary. (And it was usually necessary.)

I’m still not sure how he managed to develop our homestead, grade our old road and plow the snow from it with our 1948 Ford tractor, help to build a lean-to attachment for our house trailer, and erect a rough-cut garage to keep our one vehicle out of the weather. He kept us in moose meat and salmon and waterfowl. He helped our neighbors, and they helped him.

He was, starting in 1960, the first resident dentist on the central Kenai.

Dad seemed born to this life. His paternal uncle and his own father had been dentists back in rural Indiana. Dentistry was destiny — a foregone conclusion. As soon as he completed his undergraduate work at Purdue University, he began attending the School of Dentistry at the University of Indiana. When he graduated in June 1957, he took and passed the Indiana State Board of Dental Examiners’ licensing exam.

Next came the U.S. Army Medical Service School in San Antonio, Texas. And then Whittier. In October 1960, we arrived in Soldotna.

Dad and dentistry. It never occurred to me that he might have taken any other path.

Until 2023.

In May last year — 16 years after his death — I finally began to wonder.

And there was one person I thought might know. To Aunt Joyce, my dad’s sister, I sent the following question: “Did my dad ever consider a different career path before settling on dentistry? Or was he planning from the beginning to follow in your father’s footsteps?”

She responded quickly: “No, he strongly considered Will Troyer’s career … then decided if that was his career, it would be a job, not the escape he loved — so dentistry! We talked about this often!”

Will Troyer was probably my father’s closest adult friend. A wildlife biologist, Will was a manager of the Kodiak and Kenai national wildlife refuges. He and Dad were members of the Kenai Conservation Society. Even when they were old men, they hunted moose together on the central Kenai, ptarmigan in the uplands, grouse near the refuge’s canoe system, deer on Kodiak Island, ducks on the marshes.

For years, they made annual pilgrimages to North Dakota to hunt pheasants.

Both had been born in North Central Indiana and made their way to Alaska. Both had a seemingly unquenchable desire to be in the out-of-doors. Both had a strong conservation ethos. Although different men in many ways, they were kindred spirits.

Will had chosen the career path that Dad had turned away from. He had lived the life that Dad used as an “escape.”

Ah, what might have been….

Had our father made the choice that Will did, my siblings and I would likely have still grown up in Alaska. Dad was determined from a young age to make his home here. When asked by the U.S. Army to choose his top three duty locations after basic training, he filled all three blanks with “Alaska,” a place he had only read and dreamed about, a place more than 4,000 miles from the familiar corn and soybean fields of rural Indiana.

Our family might still have lived on a homestead on the Kenai, but that was hardly guaranteed. Dentists in Alaska in the late 1950s and early 1960s had many options about where to establish practices. Wildlife biologists, on the other hand, had to go initially where the jobs were, often moving as they rose in rank or took on new obligations. Will Troyer began his career in Southeast Alaska and eventually came to Southcentral.

Had Dad opted for wildlife biology, medicine would have been part of only Dad’s family history, not ours so directly. Instead of a man with many hundreds of patients over 40 years, Dad would have been part of a much smaller circle of professional contacts — administrators, researchers, concerned members of the public, the press, and other biologists.

Dad disliked calling attention to himself, and I think he would not have enjoyed the media aspects of a biologist career. He would have little appreciated such scrutiny. Perhaps he’d have grown into that responsibility, acknowledging its importance and learning to handle it with his intellect and good humor.

Who knows? Such is speculation. An interesting exercise that can never replace the reality of the lives we all actually lead.

In dentistry, Dad found an element in which he could thrive. Out of the office and in the out-of-doors, he found the means to enhance the career and the life he had chosen.

Calvin Fair, in his element, on Buck Mountain, above Chief Cove on Kodiak Island, in October 1986. His hunting partner and longtime friend Will Troyer captured this image while they were on one of the duo’s annual deer-hunting trips.

Calvin Fair, in his element, on Buck Mountain, above Chief Cove on Kodiak Island, in October 1986. His hunting partner and longtime friend Will Troyer captured this image while they were on one of the duo’s annual deer-hunting trips.