Respect, hospitality and friendship mark Tabata’s life

The embodiment of the Japanese tradition of respect for one’s teacher and the Hawaiian devotion to hospitality and friendship, Dr. Russell Tabata, D.D.S. ’67, seamlessly blends these cultural influences.

He is quick to deflect the credit and attention for the overwhelming success of the UMKC Hawaiian dental alumni group to others, especially those who have gone before:  his father, Dr. Ichiro Tabata, D.D.S. ’38, alumni leader until his death in 1970, and Dr. George Tanaka, D.D.S. ’49, who headed the Hawaiian alumni group until he died in 1996.

But ask anyone, and they will tell you it is Tabata’s indefatigable enthusiasm that keeps the School of Dentistry Hawaiian alumni association intact and growing. In appreciation for their unrivaled service, the entire group received the university’s highest non-academic honor, the Chancellor’s Medal, at a ceremony in Hawaii in 2009.

And when UMKC’s Hawaii Roos gathered on Saturday, February 9, for an alumni reception at the Oahu Country Club in Honolulu, Tabata was on hand to welcome the contingent from his beloved alma mater, UMKC. Tabata, recipient of the 2013 Bill French Alumni Service Award, is the elder statesman in a long line of Hawaiian UMKC School of Dentistry graduates dating back to the 1940s.

The connection between UMKC’s School of Dentistry, and Hawaiians interested in dental careers, is a story that begins with tragedy but endures in triumph.

With the United States’ entry into World War II, American citizens of Japanese descent were dropped from higher education institutions without recourse, summarily rounded up and sent to internment camps. The Kansas City Dental School (now the UMKC School of Dentistry) stood apart, admitting students of Japanese ancestry and accepting them into the school’s culture and society.

Because there was no dental school in Hawaii, “word spread about this school in the Midwest where people were welcome, no matter what their background,” said Tabata. He added that UMKC’s reputation for non-discriminatory, fair and kind treatment continues.

Tabata’s patients come first with him, and it is this same single-minded regard for the well-being of others that he looks for in potential students he recruits for the UMKC School of Dentistry. More than a job, Tabata sees his life’s work as a source of pride and honor and expects the same of students he recommends to UMKC.

Practicing in partnership with Dr. Brandon Yokota, D.D.S. ’03, Tabata encourages new generations of Hawaiian dentists to be enthusiastic about their profession and to somehow repay the benefits they received from UMKC.

Restorative dentistry is one of Tabata’s specialties, a discipline that he constantly seeks to improve. As he acquires better techniques, he visits Kansas City several times a year to pass along what he has learned to the faculty and students at UMKC.

An outgrowth of this has been the establishment at UMKC of an RV Tucker Study Club, a group of skilled restorers who act as mentors to other dentists. This program is all the more extraordinary because participating mentors come from Hawaii to UMKC – often for one day – to teach and assist with organizational details. The School of Dentistry is now in the process of starting a similar club for students.

It is this depth of dedication that made Tabata a clear choice of the School of Dentistry’s Alumni Awards nominating committee, and finally, of the UMKC Alumni Awards Selection Committee. In a letter nominating him, a colleague wrote that if a Hawaiian student is lucky enough to be selected for the UMKC Dental School “the experience will change that student in ways no other school can change them.” The nomination went on to cite Tabata’s personal monitoring of each Hawaiian students’ progress in school and his personal mentoring of them when they return to Hawaii to practice.

With typical modesty, Tabata says, “I was fortunate and things worked out very well for me. Young people who don’t have family who were dentists like I had, it’s harder for them, and I’ve always wanted to help. Being with young people and helping them is an interest for me.”

Every year, he organizes meetings among Hawaiian alumni, parents of current students, new graduates and the School of Dentistry dean. The meetings, down to the last detail, are for the edification and enjoyment of the guests – Tabata sees to everything and even includes commemorative gifts.

Respect and appreciation for Tabata’s leadership are constant. As Dr. Yokota says of his partner and friend, “He doesn’t have to ask us to support UMKC. We understand it’s just what you do.”

Dr. Tabata and the Hawaiian dental alumni group were the subjects of a recent article in UMKC’s alumni magazine, Perspectives, beginning on page 8. For more about Dr. Tabata and the UMKC-Hawaii connection, please go to this link:

The Bill French Alumni Service Award, named in honor of UMKC’s first vice chancellor for University Advancement and given in recognition of outstanding alumni loyalty and commitment, is the highest award for alumni service bestowed by UMKC. Tabata’s award, and those of the other alumni honorees, one from each school and the five university-wide awards of distinction, will be presented at the 2013 Alumni Awards luncheon on April 18.

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