Open wide … and say, Thank you.
“He’s given a lot to the school and hasn’t always been recognized,” says Lily Garcia, dean of UNLV’s School of Dental Medicine, about the institution’s founder and ex-Nevada state senator, Dr. Ray Rawson. “This is our opportunity to recognize the key founder.”
Coinciding with this fall’s 20th anniversary of the creation of the school, an auditorium named for Rawson will be dedicated in a ceremony on Aug. 25.
Much effort over many years – amounting to the persistence of a bulldog – characterized Rawson’s drive to create a dental school in Southern Nevada and, as Garcia notes, it left an indelible legacy. “It’s his care for Nevada,” she says. “He was looking out for his community. He used his position to be able to leverage whatever it took to get this started. He’s never asked for naming, he never looked for it, but he takes great pride in it, and I thought, we’ve never said ‘thank you.’”
Rawson’s journey to founder status dates back to being among the first class – of only 29 students – to graduate from UNLV in 1964, when it was still named Nevada Southern. As with most new graduates, Rawson was faced with career decisions – though his didn’t exactly square with the further education he sought locally. Southern Nevada had zero pre-health professional degree options for those who wanted post-college health careers.
“(UNLV) didn’t really have a full-blown program so it took me five years to get all the courses I needed,” recalls Rawson, now retired and living in Michigan.
“I had a classmate at UNLV that went to Loma Linda Dental School (in California) the year before I graduated and he had such positive things to say about it. Loma Linda gave me the choice whether to pursue medicine or dentistry, and I could decide all the way up to my second year. I loved dentistry. I like to work with my hands. I was in basic science classes with the med students and it just didn’t excite me like dentistry did.”
Determined to bring dental medicine education to his Las Vegas – to which he returned after his California graduation – Rawson nursed that dream over the next four decades as he practiced in his home state and started a family.
“It was Gov. Paul Laxalt who came up with the money to start a dental hygiene program at the community college, so I volunteered to head that project and we got it started,” Rawson says. “It was a small class of 12 or 14 students, but it turned out to be an excellent program and that really cemented it in my mind. I wanted to teach dentistry and find a place to do it.”
In 1984, Rawson ran for the state senate and within a year became vice chairman of the Republican Caucus and chairman of human resources, overseeing all state healthcare programs. “I started looking in earnest then for ways to be able to finance the school,” he says. “It took me 20 years to get to that point where I could say, ‘OK, maybe this is possible.’”
That possibility gained momentum because of a central issue in Nevada: dental care for children. Rawson’s research found that in the year before he approached the state for funding, 94 percent of emergency room visits for children were associated with dental infections. “That’s just atrocious, a terrible statistic. A lot of those kids were seriously harmed by those infections,” Rawson says. “That was one thing we wanted to do, provide a pathway to take care of those things before they were hospitalized. We established that the dental school would be an essential community service.”
That function, Garcia says, differentiates the dental school from other institutions. “A dental school is not a classroom — it’s an outpatient hospital. It’s dental clinics,” she says. The school has grown to about 200 treatment areas with an urgent care clinic. “We have people in the morning who don’t have appointments who show up early because they are in pain and we take care of their pain. None of this is for free, it’s just like a hospital, but it’s the idea that they have an option in this city.”
Patients are not the only beneficiaries – students receive on-the-job training. “It’s OK to learn the theory of dentistry but you really need the expertise with your hands to be able to perform the procedures,” Rawson says. “It’s like being a surgeon as an MD."
When the school started, students worked in various community clinics around town. "That’s not the best way to educate [the students] because they’re spread around, so we very quickly tried to find a way for a central clinic.”
Enter the UNLV School of Dental Medicine. Rawson Rawson said he is particularly proud of how the school impacted more equitable gender respresentation in the field. “We had eight women dentists in the state when I graduated. When we graduated our first class from the dental school, I think there were 28,” Rawson says. “[The school] immediately changed the whole landscape and offered women an opportunity and offered patients the opportunity to have a woman work on them. … It was revolutionary. The whole field nationally is changing, and I think we were in the forefront of that.”
Rawson also taught at the school in its early years, providing instruction on head and neck anatomy, local anesthesia and pharmacology, among other classes. “As they developed, I pulled back,” he says. “I tried not to interfere with any of the deans put in place. I tried to support, but not interfere. It’s still developing, there are still things that have to be done, but it’s nice to sit back and see how it’s growing and developing.”
Looking back on all his intersecting careers – dentist, educator, politician – Rawson feels gratified by what he’s accomplished. “I served 20 years in the Legislature and I can look back and see that I had a fundamental effect on higher education,” Rawson says.
“It’s not just in dental school but setting the groundwork for a medical school in Las Vegas and nursing programs all over the state and the services that go with it — everything from cardiac monitoring to ultrasound for babies. Maybe they would have come anyway, but that’s something I feel good about. There’s not many other things in politics you can look back on [and say that].”
Though an auditorium bearing his name is one concrete demonstration of appreciation, the respect he engenders suffuses everything he’s done. “I have absolute respect for him and I did seek his advice and counsel on many things,” Garcia says.
“This is a person who had the forethought to create a school, not in his name, but in support of the community of people who lack access to care. He’s a kind soul.”