University of Pittsburgh

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What Hollis Knew

The legacy of a neighborhood dentist lives on, nurtured by Pitt’s Dennis Ranalli

Written by Niki Kapsambelis

Restless and curious as a child can be, Dennis Ranalli was the kind of youngster who liked to tinker. Sitting in a waiting room wasn’t exactly his strong suit.

Fortunately, he found a sympathetic mentor in his dentist, Hollis Zwicker, who had a laboratory in the building that housed his office in the working-class Pittsburgh suburb of Millvale. Zwicker gave his young and restless patient permission to poke around in the laboratory, a virtual treasure trove of Bunsen burners and wax molds.

“He was a real big guy—tall, lanky, had really big hands,” recalls Ranalli. “You thought, ‘Wow, how did he get those hands inside somebody’s mouth?’ This was before fluoride; that’s probably why I went to the dentist so often.”

The lab technicians befriended the boy and gave him simple projects to do; Zwicker gave him old instruments to take home. By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Ranalli knew how to make a mold of someone’s teeth, and he was sure he wanted to be a dentist.

For a local boy, schooled in the lore of Pitt athletics and surrounded by neighbors who were Pitt alumni, the teenager’s first choice for college was a foregone conclusion. When he got the letter of acceptance in his senior year in high school, he knew exactly where he’d go to begin pursuing his dream—the University of Pittsburgh.

Ranalli graduated from Pitt in 1968, studying biology and chemistry. He won a scholarship from a state senator to attend dental school in Philadelphia, and he did a residency at a cleft palate clinic before returning to Pittsburgh and paying a visit to his old friend and mentor, Hollis Zwicker. The boy who had once tinkered in Zwicker’s on-site laboratory had returned to join the practice.

Over the years, a handful of other dentists followed the same route, learning a love of the profession from Zwicker—and, later, Ranalli.

“It was a mini-feeder school” for Pitt dentists, says Ranalli, adding that Zwicker had 14 people working in his office, including his own lab technicians and insurance employees.

“He was a visionary in that way,” says Ranalli. “He had a lot of professional courage—he did everything himself.”

It was Zwicker who also got Ranalli interested in academia. The senior dentist taught part-time in the Pitt clinic and brought Ranalli in as a faculty member to work on Wednesdays, when the dental practice was closed. The school’s dean, intrigued by Ranalli’s cleft palate background, asked him to work in the cleft palate center.

Later, Ranalli earned a master’s degree in dental science from Pitt and accepted a full-time faculty position. Since then, he has risen steadily through the ranks to become senior associate dean in the School of Dental Medicine.

He says that when Dean Thomas Braun offered him the associate deanship, Ranalli answered, “That’s great, but I don’t know what that means,” to which Braun jokingly replied, “It means you get to do anything I don’t want to do.”

In reality, Ranalli spends much of his time mentoring students in the dental school. He also serves as an advisory board member for the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Program, and he is the team dentist for Pitt’s football, wrestling, and women’s basketball teams.

“For a while, a lot of the athletes were into the bling, the tongue piercings, and the grills,” he says. “It peaked, though. I don’t see as much of it anymore … You kind of get used to it. They keep me young.”

Ranalli’s three children all attended Pitt, and he and his wife have traveled extensively through Pitt’s alumni travel and continuing education programs. Some work-related trips have taken him to Paris, London, and various sites abroad; but others, such as a February trip to the Special Olympics World Winter Games, only took him as far away as Idaho. To Ranalli, each represents a unique chance to touch someone’s life.

“My range of responsibilties means that I’m involved in a lot of diverse activities,” says Ranalli. “I have many opportunities to influence people in a positive manner. That has been my life, in a way.”

In the footsteps of his mentor, Ranalli has  honed a talent for helping others to succeed. Surely, Hollis Zwicker is clapping those big hands.