Marvin Stark, traveling dentist with a big heart, dies at 80

Dr. Marvin Stark's interest in science began early. As a young boy, he and his sister Gertrude used their chemistry set to turn the bathtub purple. From that beginning, Stark went on to become a dentist and co-found a mobile dentistry unit that served the poor in California and in Israel and other countries. Stark, of Los Altos Hills, died Feb. 13 in Menlo Park. He was 80.

Born on March 14, 1921 in Smorze, Poland, Stark came to Brooklyn as an infant with his family.

After graduating from high school at 16, he left home to work at a small hotel owned by his aunt in Michigan. It was there that he was introduced to his future wife, Gladys.

After eloping in 1943, Stark served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he and his wife moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA. The Starks were the first married couple to graduate from UCLA after World War II.

They moved to San Francisco so he could attend dental school at UCSF. Upon graduation, Stark accepted a fellowship at Harvard University, and then returned to the Bay Area in 1954 to join the faculty of UCSF as a professor of operative dentistry and oral biology. He remained on the faculty for 39 years, earning many professional awards, while simultaneously conducting a private practice in Santa Clara until his retirement in 1987.

In 1967, the Starks took their three children to Cartegna, Columbia, where Stark immunized children and lectured to dental students. While there, Gladys contracted viral encephalitis, which left her in a coma for nearly two months. During that time, Stark managed to care for his children, do his own work, and commute to San Francisco twice a week to teach his courses.

"My dad prayed deeply and made a pledge to himself that if my mom recovered from the horrific illness that struck her, he would devote his professional life to contribute in some special way something to humanity," said his daughter, Susan Stark, who was 6 at the time.

Gladys Stark did recover completely, and Marvin Stark carried out his pledge.

In 1970 he co-founded the Mobile Dental Health Clinic, offering dental services to the poor out of a bus outfitted with sinks, drills and X-ray machines. After taking this project to serve the children of migrant workers in California, he took it to Greece, Yugoslavia and Morocco.

He also was instrumental in setting up a permanent dental clinic in Kiryat Shmona, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's sister community in Israel. He took his traveling bus to the Jewish state some 20 times, fixing the teeth of both Jewish and Arab children, never going there to vacation.

He also had to circumvent a lot of bureaucracy.

"When General Motors refused to break their assembly line to build two buses bound for Israel and Greece, he convinced a GM board member to intervene," said his son, Richard Stark. "When the Israeli government refused to license an American bus for the Israeli roads, he found a way around the bureaucracy, in broken Hebrew and Yiddish."

In a 1988 article in the Jewish Bulletin, Stark said simply, "Israeli kids get toothaches, too."

Hadassah twice awarded Stark with its Mount Scopus award for his dedication and contribution to Israel.

He named his mobile dental unit "Project Carolyn," after the Starks' eldest daughter, Carolyn, who died at age 26.

"He had a special love for my wonderful sister, his first child, Carolyn," said Richard Stark of Menlo Park. "The pain of losing her never really diminished. He still cried every time he or someone else mentioned her name."

According to both his surviving children, despite his busy professional life, Stark was a deeply devoted father and husband.

He tirelessly looked to repair things around the house, going by the motto, "If it isn't broken, then fix it so it won't break!" But according to Richard Stark, his compulsion to tinker was propelled by a deeper motive, which was "keeping us close. You can't get mad at someone after you spend five hours on a Saturday under a sink with him."

Both Stark children remarked that their father was not one to hide his emotions.

"If he was angry, you knew it; if he was disappointed, you knew it; if he was sad, you knew it," said his son. "My father taught me that 'sweeping things under the rug' isn't really cleaning; it just makes the rug lumpy."

Susan Stark, of Redwood Shores, compared her father to the Israeli native fruit, the sabra: "prickly on the outside yet soft and sweet on the interior. My dad was sharp and tough in his professional life, highly driven with a zeal to accomplish the many things he did, but inside and privately he was a man steeped with overwhelming sensitivity, tenderness, compassion and understanding for others with amazing depth of emotion."

Stark was a founding member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. In her eulogy for him, Beth Am Rabbi Janet Marder said, "Marvin took care of everyone; he did it with energy and zest, and he did it with love."

In addition to his wife of 58 years and two children, Stark is survived by five grandchildren.

Donations in Stark's memory can be made to Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Rd., Los Altos Hills, CA. 94022.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."