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UnitedTheyStood in '72

 

by Sheila Smith Noonan

Like a tie-dyed t-shirt in a roomful of pinstripes, the Class of December '72 stands out in NJDS history. There was, of course, the march in Newark to protest the Kent State shootings and the infamous microbiology exam boycott. But what these alumni say makes their class remarkable is its unity, which continues 25 years after graduation.

From their early freshman days in 1969, the class held together as tightly as ZOP. "We had one goal, and that was for us all to get through dental school," says Dr. Michael Della Rosa, clinical associate professor of Oral Pathology, Biology and Diagnostic Sciences (OPBDS). "There was a spirit of camaraderie, not competitiveness. If someone was doing poorly in a class, students stronger in the subject would tutor him." The unified approach worked. Except for one classmate who left dental school early on, every student in the Class of December '72 graduated.

This unique class had some unique characteristics: Instead of a four-year program, they were on a condensed 3 1/2-year schedule; as undergraduate students, many enjoyed democratic relationships with professors and administrators; and at a time when more women were enrolling in dental schools, there were only men in the 56-member class. "That may have allowed the group to bond more as a fraternity," says Dr. Patrick Quaranta, today an associate professor of clinical OPBDS.

But most significant was the group's leadership­class officers known as "The Italian Macrophage." Dr. John Vitale, class president, along with Drs. Joel Pascuzzi, Gary Vitaletti, John Graeber, and Thomas Santora, a long-time NJDS Alumni Association class delegate, were extraordinary leaders known for their ability to negotiate with professors. Classmate Dr. Paul Feuerstein, now a general practitioner in Massachusetts, recalls watching them walk down the hall, attaché cases in hand, ready to get down to business. "They would go to a department chair, say 'We have a proposal that we're sure you will accept,' and then sit down to talk."

That approach raised a few eyebrows at NJDS at the time. Get on a certain professor's bad side, these alumni recall, and he could make your life miserable the rest of the semester. Undaunted, the officers attempted to get faculty to see their point of view. One of their most notable successes involved an anatomy exam. Students had been assured that material on skull dissection, which was on the mid-term, would not be on the final. But a month before the last exam, the professor announced it would be cumulative. "There was a flurry of class meetings, after which we approached the anatomy department and pled our case, " recalls Dr. Vitaletti, currently a clinical associate professor of OPBDS. "Finally, the department decided that the final was optional if you had a certain grade average."

With that victory and others behind it, the class was confident that it could successfully negotiate with a microbiology professor. As Dr. Della Rosa remembers, his exams were considered unfair by the students: The exam format was often ambiguous, with variable results.

When the professor would not change his style of testing, the December '72 class voted to boycott the final exam. It was not a unanimous vote at first; Drs. Della Rosa and Quaranta, the class's more conservative members, were initially hesitant to do so. But in the end, the class retained its united front and did not show up for the final. Meanwhile, the professor stayed for the entire exam period in an empty room. This standoff put the class members in a dicey position: By not taking the exam, they would fail the course.

Eventually, NJDS and the students compromised. The class could take the microbiology exam, but the highest grade anyone could earn for the course was a C. "It was another example of how unified we were," says Dr. Dominic Pisano, who has practiced for 25 years with classmate Dr. Richard Procopio and teaches one day a week in the Department of General and Hospital Dentistry. "Students who could have received A's in microbiology gave up their high marks for the class and what we believed was right."

Not all professors were at odds with the class. In fact, some enjoyed good­yet spirited­relationships with these students, among them, Dr. Frank Frates, who left NJDS after their freshman year, and Dr. Irwin Quinn. One time, Dr. Pisano recalls, he and Dr. Quinn had a shouting match over a mold the student had made. "I totally lost my composure in front of the whole class. The next day it was as if nothing had happened, and we developed a mutual respect," says Dr. Pisano. "He was a tremendous teacher."

The class's conscience flared up earlier than the microbiology exam. In the spring of 1970, collegians nationwide protested the National Guard's killing of four Kent State University students. The December Class of '72, then in the second semester of its freshman year, sent a telegram to President Nixon protesting the Guard's actions.

"Kent State struck a raw nerve with us, and we had endless meetings as to what our role should be," says Dr. Vitaletti. "In a spur-of-the-moment decision, we voted to march." And so the class marched from the interim buildings toward City Hall, all wearing white coats and black armbands. They were the only dental students to protest; the other NJDS classes were at the Jersey City campus. The class formed an alliance with medical students, even meeting with UMDNJ President Dr. Stanley S. Bergen, Jr., on the issue. While they walked their conscience, for the most part, the students didn't have an interested audience. "Newark was in the middle of its own racial crisis, and then here comes a bunch of white guys talking about Kent State and Vietnam," recalls Dr. Feuerstein. "Some of the people we marched by couldn't have cared less."

Again, although the class voted unanimously, not everyone was of the same mind. Dr. Pisano, who did not agree with the antiwar movement, was originally going to go home, but he marched with his class. Dr. Della Rosa, another who did not consider himself antiwar, was nonetheless troubled by the National Guard's actions. "I was upset about the killings and thought our government had made a serious mistake."

While the class may come off as serious and intense, it had its lighthearted moments. "We studied hard, but we played hard, too," says Dr. Pisano. Members played football and softball together, often in the small openings among the interim classroom buildings of the Newark campus; Dr. Frates even gave money to the students for uniforms and balls, recalls classmate Dr. Emil Cappetta, a clinical professor of Periodontics who was recently appointed to the New Jersey State Board of Dentistry. Others regularly played pinochle. They published an underground newspaper, "The Gross Gazette," which was edited "anonymously" by Dr. Ray Ungermah. As seniors, the class cut a 33 1/3 rpm record chronicling its years together, narrated by Dr. Quaranta.

The Class of '72 still holds some distinctions at NJDS. It is the best-represented class on the NJDS faculty, with eight professors, including Dr. Pascuzzi, clinical professor of Periodontics; Dr. Michael Deasy, chairman of Periodontics; Dr. Gary Heir, clinical associate professor of OPBDS; Dr. Cappetta; and Dr. Pisano. Three of those professors­Drs. Quaranta, Della Rosa, and Vitaletti­have won the Excellence in Teaching Award. (See "One Class, Three Great Teachers," pg. 11).

But what matters most to this class, which reunited last fall, is that 25 years later, the ties still bind.

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One Class, 3 Great Teachers

The year 1972 was good for the Oakland Athletics, The Godfather, and apparently, producing gifted dental educators. Three members of the NJDS Class of December '72 have received the Foundation of UMDNJ's Excellence in Teaching Award in recent years: Dr. Michael Della Rosa, Dr. Gary Vitaletti, and Dr. Patrick Quaranta. Coincidentally, all three are from the Department of Oral Pathology, Biology and Diagnostic Sciences (OPBDS).

Although the three classmates share much in common, they have each taken different paths to get where they are today at NJDS.

Upon graduation, Dr. Della Rosa was offered a teaching position at NJDS, but instead headed for San Diego to serve two years in the Navy Dental Corps. He returned to New Jersey and entered private general practice with classmate Dr. Maurice Hill; they've been partners for 22 years, and their office is in Brick.

Years went by, but Dr. Della Rosa hadn't abandoned his desire to teach. He contacted professors at the school and in 1989 began part-time in the Department of General and Hospital Dentistry. Today, as clinical associate professor, he works two days at the school and divides his time there between the clinic floor and teaching diagnostic sciences.

"I think of myself as someone who tries to be helpful, yet is somewhat demanding," says Dr. Della Rosa, who won the Excellence in Teaching Award in 1995-96. "Students are interested in talking with me about private practice and what the 'real world' is like. I love what I do at NJDS­it's invigorating and challenging."

Like Dr. Della Rosa, Dr. Vitaletti entered the military after dental school. He served with the Army Dental Corps first in San Antonio, then at Fort Dix. He returned to his home town of Nutley, where he entered private practice.

Dr. Vitaletti also came back to NJDS, but this time as a faculty member. For 15 years he taught one day a week; then he worked 40 percent for six more; and last February he was brought on for three days a week. He teaches two treatment planning seminars, four sessions on the clinic floor, and continuing education classes, as well as lecturing sporadically in three other courses. Dr. Vitaletti says winning the Excellence in Teaching Award twice, in 1994-95 and 1996-97, "forced me to rededicate my efforts­and happily so­to education. Nothing is more rewarding than when former students come back and express appreciation for our efforts in their education."

In working with students, Dr. Vitaletti believes in pulling no punches. "At the beginning of the semester, I tell them, 'I will teach you whatever I can to make you better dentists based on my experience. I will tell you what works for me and what doesn't work for me.' They see me as someone who is honest with something to give them that they can carry into the future."

Dr. Quaranta has never entirely left NJDS. After graduation, he joined his father's general practice in Highland Park and taught at the school one day a week, beginning in what was then the Department of Oral Diagnosis and Radiology. The classroom wasn't new to him; before dental school, Dr. Quaranta was a high school science teacher.

Over the past seven years, Dr. Quaranta, a clinical associate professor, has added on to his time at the school. In addition to being course director, he teaches treatment planning for the medically compromised patient, leads a problem-based learning seminar, works on the clinic floor, and teaches continuing education classes. Meanwhile, he has earned a master's in psychology and devotes two days a week to his practice. What keeps him going, Dr. Quaranta says, is his love of teaching. "I have a real enthusiasm for it­I love to explain," he says.

All three dentists consider winning the Excellence in Teaching Award a tremendous honor because students choose the recipients. "That students chose me from more than 200 faculty is both flattering and humbling," says Dr. Quaranta, who won the award in 1993-94 and 1996-97.

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