Philip Trask has been a butcher’s apprentice, an artilleryman, a telephone lineman, and a member of a juvenile gang. But as an instructor and mentor at the UCLA School of Dentistry, the longtime pediatric dentist has found his true calling in serving the wider Los Angeles community.
“UCLA is my happy place,” said Trask, 79, who celebrates half a century of teaching at the dental school this year. “The essence of pediatric dentistry is to teach. Giving the gift of knowledge is one of the only gifts you can give that doesn’t diminish what you have.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a dental student or resident who hasn’t benefitted from Trask’s experience and wisdom, UCLA said. Also, his influence as a private practitioner, an advocate for children’s oral health, and a volunteer dentists for schools, nursing homes, and other organizations has been felt and recognized across the region, UCLA said.
“I’m just lucky to have the opportunity to continue giving and receiving from the dentistry field, which has given me so much purpose,” said Trask.
Born in Los Angeles, Trask spent much of his adolescence in an orphanage. By the time he was in high school, he was working in a butcher’s shop to support himself. He also found the camaraderie he craved in a gang. Soon, a judge gave him the options of jail time or joining the military. Trask then became an artillery operator in Vietnam, where he suffered permanent hearing loss from cannon blasts.
The experience helped him turn his life around. Following his honorable discharge, he put himself through community college by working full time as a lineman for the telephone and gas companies in Los Angeles, eventually transferring to UCLA and then UC San Francisco, where he was admitted to the dentistry program. Dentistry, he felt, was more conducive than medicine, his other preference, to having a family.
He chanced upon the job that would determine the course of his future in 1968, his final year of dental school. While covering for a colleague at a lab that made prosthetic eyes and cheeks for post-oral cancer patients, he was asked to fill in at a clinic that treated infants with cleft palates.
“It was something I stumbled upon, but it would forever change my professional track,” Trask said. “I’d been planning to become a prosthodontist and work with geriatric patients, but working with young children was uplifting.”
Within two years, Trask had opened a pediatric dentistry practice in Santa Monica. Over the next three and a half decades, the practice grew into one of the largest in West Los Angeles. He also accepted a 20% faculty appointment at the UCLA School of Dentistry, which later increased to 50%. Trask poured himself into both endeavors with fervor, UCLA said.
With his students, UCLA said, teaching was always about more than skills and technique. It also was about life lessons, many gleaned from his own experience. Early in his career, for example, as a young, long-haired, bearded, and tie-dyed practitioner, he found his patients weren’t heeding his advice. So he cleaned up his appearance and focused on ensuring his patients had a positive experience.
“I quicky realized that I needed to look the part of a medical provide and to concentrate on my doctor-patient communication,” he said. “I never had a problem after that, and this is something I try to teach my residents.”
Ronald Bills, one of his former students and the first graduate of the pediatric dentistry residency program, still recalls one of Trask’s pieces of advice.
“He said to me, ‘Bills, take off your watch. It’s a stressor.’ At the time, I was going through a personal crisis. It meant a lot to me that he took the time to talk to me as a colleague and friend, versus a student talking to his instructor. It goes to show you the type of person he is and how he treats those around him.”
The signature care and attention Trask has always paid to his patients has been mirrored by his unflagging devotion to his students, UCLA said. He has worked tirelessly on their behalf over the years, UCLA added, networking, seeking out opportunities and even bringing graduates into his private practice.
Trask’s daughter Laura remembers that “without hesitation, my father would always be happy, no matter what, even staying up long hours, to write personalized job and college-entry letters of recommendations or student evaluations.”
Trask also has never missed an opportunity to bring UCLA’s expertise to the broader community, the school said, whether testifying before the Los Angeles and Santa Monica city councils on behalf of the university about the benefits of fluoridated water or working as a supervising faculty member for the past 17 years at UCLA’s Give Kids a Smile events, which provide oral care for children in underserved communities.
“Phil has been a pillar of UCLA Pediatric Dentistry for decades, dedicated to helping residents, students, and the children and families who seek care from UCLA,” said Dr. James Crall, professor and chair of public health and community dentistry at the school.
“He understands and has modeled what it truly means to be a professional, someone with special knowledge and skills whose mission is to help others. That’s the Phil Trask that I and countless others have known over these many years, a gifted and tirelessly giving friend, teacher, and supporter of all things UCLA,” Crall said.
Trask’s commitment to serving others also has taken him far beyond the school, UCLA said. He has taken volunteer teaching assignments in Tokyo and Mexico City and has provided dental care on American Indian reservations. In fact, the handmade leather jacket with buffalo nickel buttons given to him by one tribe has become a family heirloom.
Trask also has served as the chief volunteer dentist for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, dental consultant for the Jewish Home for the Aging, and chief pediatric dentist for Vista Del Mar, a Jewish nonprofit and orphanage.
Furthermore, he still regularly provides dental care to children with special needs at health fairs hosted by the Friendship Circle Los Angeles and invites his students to join him at these and other events, believing that a sense of altruism is one of the most important qualities that future oral health leaders can possess.
And although back surgery in 2005 forced him to sell his Santa Monica practice, he soon launched a new one in Pacific Palisades because he missed treating patients.
“I still randomly come across stories of my father’s work, in the grocery checkout line, at doctor’s appointments, the carwash, the library, wherever,” said Laura.
People who have benefitted from his help talk about what a great dentist he was for their kids and how he helped their child get into a residency program, Laura said. One of the most frequent compliments that she hears is how her father changed somebody’s life.
“He loves being a professor, being in service, providing opportunities to help change lives, giving inspiration and building relationships,” she said. “He is an inherent lifelong learner, and being a professor has allowed my dad to selflessly exercise and share this part of himself with his students. It’s his life’s calling.”
The best piece of advice that Trask said he can give to his students and younger colleagues as he prepares to enter his sixth decade of teaching is to always keep their focus on what is most important.
“The most common reward in our society is money and salary,” he said. “Another reward is that which one receives from the hug of a parent or a smile from a child. Giving to those less fortunate is truly better than receiving, and the rewards I’ve received in my career are worth far more than money.”