“The purpose of life is …. to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Those words, written more than a century ago by the philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, encapsulate the life and legacy of Mark J. Feldman, DMD, past ADA president and treasurer and executive director of the New York State Dental Association.
Dr. Feldman died on November 25 surrounded by his family following a long illness.
It’s never easy saying goodbye to a friend and mentor, no matter how well prepared we think we are. The feelings of profound sadness and loss are compounded when added to many years of experiences shared, challenges met, campaigns waged, policies developed and relationships nurtured. Without exception, everybody who had the privilege of having known and worked with Mark can attest to his many qualities, not the least of which was his sheer humanity. Mark was a natural born leader, but so too was he a true friend and mentor.
“We all turned to Mark for his guidance and unparalleled knowledge of dentistry’s past, present and future,” states NYSDA President Dr. Kevin Henner. “And in return, each of us received the gifts of his compassion, empathy and thoughtfulness. He never failed to offer words of encouragement when needed most.”
The highlights of Mark’s illustrious career in organized dentistry could be documented by pages upon pages of bulleted resume points, outlining his ascendancy from service on insurance committees to the pinnacle of dental leadership, ADA President. To be sure, those things are black and white reminders of professional excellence, but they pale in comparison to the examples of the real life action leading to solutions that Mark was able to make happen. Ever an effective change agent, Mark was instrumental in so many of dentistry’s paramount achievements, including most recently guiding NYSDA through the perils of the COVID epidemic. Because of his leadership, and the deep respect given him by state and national policymakers, dentistry was at the forefront of negotiations to resume practice.
In explaining Mark’s ability to integrate legislative policy with what made the most sense for the dental profession and, to a greater extent, the greater public good, Dr. G. Kirk Gleason, chair of the NYS Dental Foundation and a longtime friend and colleague, says “Mark always had a clear vision as to what should be done and what was the right way to do it. He understood the balance between the science, everyday practice, administration and the politics to help us all achieve what was best for our members and for the oral health of the public. He will be greatly missed by me, personally, and by dentistry.”
On an organizational level, Mark brought his great gift of statesmanship to guiding NYSDA through some painful growing pains, working tirelessly to garner and retain the trust and support of the membership. He was always available to discuss issues and answer questions, preferring a hands on approach where many in his executive capacity would prefer to delegate. People knew that when Mark spoke, his words meant something.
“He worked long hours, sometimes seven days a week, to advocate for our members and to ensure that they were well-informed,” relates NYSDA Immediate Past President Dr. Craig Ratner. “He managed his team of professionals with expert proficiency, and the results speak for themselves.”
But the greatest achievement in Mark’s life, one of which he was most proud, and understandably so, was his family – his wife of 51 years, Carol Schiff Feldman; two sons, Eric Feldman and Sean Feldman; and three granddaughters, Hope, Riley, and Mara. According to his sons, “As passionate as he was about dentistry, for him, family always came first. Before he retired from practice, he would make sure to get home for family dinner every night. Often he would race off to a meeting of the dental society right after, but time with us was his top priority. This ultimately led to his election as president of the ADA. While he was honored to be installed in the position, he left the convention where he was installed to fly cross-country to meet his first newborn granddaughter. The position of Pop Pop was the one he was proudest of.”
In his passing, dentistry has lost an icon and a legend. Truly, Dr. Mark J. Feldman lived life well, and we who are left behind to mourn his passing can also count among our blessings the fact that we knew him, worked with him, learned from him and, for so many, loved and respected him as the consummate professional and true friend that he was.