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Still smiling after 40 years

- Wits University

A reunion after 40 years is reason to smile for the graduating Wits dentists of 1984

Class of 84' reunion

Forty-five years to the day (15 February) a group of 60 young students took up their seats at the Wits Dental School to start their academic journey to become the dentists who would be the graduating class of 1984.

Of the original class, 45 went on to graduate as dentists. Fast forward to the present day, and a group of around 20 former students, along with former lecturers and lab technicians gathered for a reunion breakfast to remember the past and celebrate the present.

“I was so green; I was a boy from Bloemfontein and did not know anything about the big city. I will never forget that first day in class, when the PA to the head of school, Louise Gerber, walked in with her bright red hair and piercing blue eyes. She knew all our names and she looked right at me, and said ‘Cahi, spit out your chewing gum, I never want to see you chewing gum again in this dental hospital’,” recalls Dr Norman Cahi.

Cahi, went on to be class president, president of the Students’ Dental Council  and served on the Students’ Representative Council. Today, he, his brother Emile and his daughter Chelsea (all Witsies) run a leading dental and prosthodontics practice in Parktown North. He stayed in touch with many of his former classmates, but he said that some people slipped off the radar as they moved out of the profession or emigrated.

“Facebook has been amazing, it has meant that we have been able to find some of our classmates that we had not heard from for decades and to catch up on our successes, our stories, news about our family, children and now even our grandchildren,” he adds.

Wits BDS Class of 84' reunion

The breakfast reunion included a virtual gathering of former classmates living abroad. It was for reconnection and reminiscing but there was a special nod to the professors, lecturers and technicians who were part of their journey to becoming the successful professionals that they are today.

“I know that I swore that I would never walk through those revolving doors of the Lawson Centre Building [the Wits Dental Hospital building] but it was the best five and half years of bonding and getting to know you all. We also had the best professors and lecturers who moulded us. They are stalwarts and stars, and we salute you,” says Cahi.

Dr Linda Greenwall, who was Cahi’s classmate, went on to become a specialist in dental whitening. Today she splits her time between London and Cape Town and is also heavily focused on the Dental Wellness Trust, a charity that she founded in 2011 to bring dental services and dental wellness to the most vulnerable in Cape Town and in the United Kingdom.

She explains: “Forty years was about the right time to let whatever bygones be bygones and to come together to celebrate our achievements and to pay tribute to our teachers. They formed us, shaped us and challenged us.”

Greenwall, who is a third-generation dentist, says that her education at Wits was “second to none” and that it was a badge of honour when she first arrived in London, as the Wits Dental School was internationally renowned. She said even when lecturers were seemingly harsh, it was for honing precision and striving for excellence.

“We were challenged, and we were guided to remain curious. I remember one time when I had made a wax tooth, but it got thrown out of the window by the lecturer. I kept working on it and going back to him each time until he finally said, ‘that’s better’,” she recalls.

For Dr Sam Nudelman, who went on to qualify as a dentist and a medical doctor, he remembers having to come to class in a tie and pressed white shirt with a white lab jacket. “If you were not dressed properly, you were sent out. It was incredibly old school and strict, but it was about nurturing commitment and discipline - like being on time for a 7am lecture.”  

Former lecturer Professor Bill Evans also spoke at the gathering. He laughed remembering the stragglers and latecomers to his class but said the reunion was a moment of deep pride. He says: “It is wonderful to come together today but for a teacher the greatest of privileges is to see when a student has superseded you, gone far ahead. I am so proud today.”

Peter Bezuidenhoudt, the Director of Fundraising and Development at Wits University explained the need for a new Wits Dental Hospital. “We are making great strides in pre-clinical training – the new Phantom Heads Laboratory is world-class and equipped with the latest technology and equipment to ensure that our students receive the best possible training.

Phantom Heads Lab at Wits Parktown Campus for Dentistry students

The new Zola Wits Dental Clinic is serving members of the Soweto community who now have access to leading edge facilities and dental care.”

The Zola Wits Dental Clinic is a refurbished and re-equipped 15-chair, state-of the-art facility for community-based training and clinical services in Zola, Soweto, officially launched in September 2023. This flagship Wits Centenary project was made possible by a generous donation from the Stanley and Marion Bergman Foundation. The clinic has a staff complement of at dentists, oral hygienists, dental assistants, and specialist dentists on a rotational basis, supervising around 12 students per rotation.