Clarence Jackson Jr. is used to speaking in front of crowds and hobnobbing with politicians. Jackson, a retired postal worker and former clerk in the U.S. Air Force, is often asked to speak to veterans’ groups or at public gatherings about his military service and veterans’ needs.
But something was always missing … his smile. “My mouth was in horrible shape,” the Montclair resident told NJJN in a phone interview. “I didn’t think I would ever get to the point where I would feel comfortable speaking in public.” When addressing crowds, Jackson, the voluntary chair of the Essex County Veterans Advisory Board, would use the microphone to hide his missing teeth and he tried not to open his mouth too wide. The condition of his teeth gave him “a lot of anxiety,” he said.
Besides the emotional toll, another consequence of the “disaster area” in his mouth, as he described it, is that he doesn’t have photographs with the numerous N.J. politicians he’s met. “A lot of the pictures never got published because I would never smile,” he said.
Enter Dr. Paul Feldman of Suburban Essex Dental in West Orange, who launched Special Ops in May 2018, a dental program to aid veterans, whom he called “an underserved population.”
“It’s nicest for me to give charity as a service rather than just out of my wallet,” Feldman said.
His project launched Memorial Day with an initial pool of $50,000 to be applied to veterans’ dental care. Feldman exceeded that amount and gave treatments and services valued at $89,720.
Why the nearly $40,000 additional amount? “Once I started with people, I decided I had to finish them,” he said.
He launched Special Ops to celebrate the 75th year of his family’s dental practice, which his father, Bernard, opened in 1943 in Irvington. “In appreciation of that,” Feldman wrote in a letter to his patients last May, “we would like to give back to the community to those among us in the most need of our services.”
Feldman joined his father in 1983 and they practiced dentistry together until 1998.
Patients’ criteria for consideration in the Special Ops program included their being local, having completed active military service, and lacking the means to afford dentistry. In the end, Jackson and six other veterans, all men from Essex County, were chosen from a pool of 15.
“It was gratifying,” said Feldman, whose family has no military history. The veterans “were super appreciative and super nice.”
Feldman grew up in Livingston and his family were members of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston. He said he has among the “oldest, continuous” practices in the state.
Jackson said his dental problems were the result of a football injury, poor hygiene, and being unable to afford proper care. He connected with Feldman through his position at the county’s advisory board. Jackson’s job is to connect veterans with services and help assimilate them into civilian life. Feldman’s practice reached out to Jackson’s office to publicize Smile Ops and Jackson became his first patient.
Jackson received “full mouth reconstruction,” according to Feldman, which included several root canals, crowns, bridges, and more. The procedures took a total of one year to complete, and Jackson never missed an appointment. “I was trying to think of ways to extend this, I was having so much fun,” he said.
Jackson said the pain was “minimal” and he called Feldman “a master” dentist. “The guy is amazing,” he said.
Jackson was scheduled to speak in Montclair this week at a Superior Court of NJ program about legal services for seniors. Since having the dental work, he said that public speaking is now “relaxed.”
“I focus more on what I’m going to say than what I’m going to look like when I say it,” he said.
Feldman takes pride in his work and recognizes the power of his craft. “I can really change someone’s life,” he said.