Xavier Magazine

One Smile at a Time: Visionary Dentist

When Dr. Edward Schaaf was asked to be the first volunteer dentist at the Free People’s Clinic in Englewood, a high-crime, poverty-plagued Chicago neighborhood, he figured he’d give it one night a month.

He wound up working two days and an evening every week at the clinic for 52 years—all of it unpaid. In 2010, however, Schaaf finally retired at the age of 78.

Now looking back on a career serving the dental needs of the uninsured, he recalls what it was like when he entered the cramped little clinic for the first time. Tucked downstairs in the basement of St. Basil Church, it was jammed with neighborhood residents—mothers and children and tired, old men—waiting to see the doctor. Schaaf was increasingly drawn to the people and moved by the gentleness and concern the physicians showed for their patients.

“I felt this was what God wanted me to do at this time in my life,” says Schaaf, who graduated from Xavier in 1953 with an Honors Bachelor of Arts. “That source of motivation is extremely important.”

While he stepped up his contributions to the clinic, Schaaf also took care of patients three to four days a week at his own practice in South Shore, which was also underserved by doctors. “That was my top priority to get done,” he says. “I found I was able to handle the stresses. So why not do what you can? There’ll come a day when you can’t.”

His dedication to improving the dental health of his patients—and their smiles—did not go unnoticed. Two years after he retired because of failing eyesight, the Chicago Dental Society Foundation awarded him its 2012 Vision Award for more than two decades of outstanding volunteer achievement and philanthropy at the clinic. Schaaf, now 83, can rest after a job well done. He not only worked without pay in the tiny clinic, but he successfully lobbied dental manufacturers to donate top-quality equipment and supplies. “I turned into a very good beggar, I tell you,” he says with a chuckle. 

Schaaf says his care for others grew from a lifelong readership of Jesuit magazines. His altruism was piqued while he was at Xavier, where, he says, “we had some incredibly dedicated and talented teachers.”

While he cared for patients’ teeth, he also listened carefully for other problems—like abuse at home. Some patients were so grateful for the free care that they cleaned floors as thanks. The clinic has since closed.