by Kathleen S. Roos Ph.D.
Editor:Anne Albaugh – Citizens Journal
EDITOR’S NOTE: This continues the series of interviews conducted by Ventura County resident Kathleen Roos, Ph.D. with immigrants from countries with oppressive governments or very different cultural outlooks as it compares to life in the USA.
Citizens Journal is eminently proud to showcase these valuable works which highlight real immigrant stories. All too often today, main stream media treats the topic of immigration in a totally political light. Far beyond the rhetoric of bluster and maneuvering, these stories illustrate the important human stories that accompany each and every immigrant that reaches our county.
I loved to read the morning newspaper with a nice cup of coffee. Looked forward to it. Now newspapers are so extreme as though we cannot think for ourselves. I cannot read them. I continue to read the Wall Street Journal.
Where were you born and tell me about your life education and career in the UK?
I was born in London in 1943. I am 78 years old and was there during the Blitz when London was heavily bombed. My father was away fighting the war and my mom, left caring for her children, was always very self-reliant. Mom took me and my brother away from London to the safety of a farm located to the north of England to stay with a farmer and his wife. My dad was in France driving an ambulance. At the end of the war my dad ended up in Holland where the troops were honored for liberating the people. Many years later we continued to get Christmas and thank-you cards from the Dutch my father befriended during the liberation. My dad’s Dutch friends were forever thankful, probably until their deaths as I always remembered receiving those cards.
My dad was an old-fashioned doctor where he had patients come into his office set off on the side of our house. He had a black bag and was always ready to travel. After office hours he would go out and do at-home visits to those who could not make it to our house. Primarily the patients he saw at home were those who could make it to his office that he termed ‘the surgery room’. The house calls were in the afternoon and late morning often in Wembley. He made house calls to anyone who could not make it to our home. He delivered many babies. People did not go to the hospital to have a baby. Most stayed in the local area and my dad ended up delivering generations of babies into the world. I truly admired him and he loved his work. We had what is called the National Health Care Service and it worked well for us. My dad worked very hard was paid well. He would take off two weeks a year.
During those two weeks it was idyllic. We would tour Brighton Beach on the south coast of England. We had wonderful parents and a beautiful upbringing. We would cruise the English Channel and in the 50s go to the Mediterranean. It was beautiful and there was very little tourism during these years. In Spain, we would go to Costa Brava along the Mediterranean Sea. It was covered with vineyards and the wine was free. The women elders would prepare the fishing nets early morning for the young men to go out and catch fish. It was beautiful. These were happy times with my brothers. I remember the first photo we ever had taken was here and I still have the photo. Probably because of the times I always wanted to live near the coast and it took me until now to be in Oxnard to live that dream.
My parents sacrificed a great deal for their kids. I had two brothers: Jonathan and Anthony. Anthony was the eldest. We were sent to very good schools. The Priests at St. Paul built in 1500 started our school located adjacent to the cathedral. Even before it became a school, it was a teaching church and lessons were given by the priests. Lessons consisted of Latin, Greek, ancient history, and they did keep lessons relevant. Later the school was relocated and the curriculum expanded into many subjects and became a private school. Upon graduation you would earn a silver fish made of real silver. These are still issued today.
Saint Paul is a building of beautiful Victorian architectural design of old brick. It is located close to central London.
The lessons were divided by children’s ages. The old level exams were prepared for those 14 and 15 years old. You had to decide early what you wanted to be. (I think that became problematic). Old Level Exams consisted of Old English Literature, French, geography, physics, chemistry, math and biology. At 14 or 15 you had to pass difficult exams to get to A level exams given to 18-year-olds. These were college and University entry exams and one had to demonstrate academic excellence. There were very high standards and my brothers flourished. Both got into Oxford University which is no easy task.
Both Anthony and Jonathan were studying to be doctors, following in my dad’s footsteps. On Anthony’s 20th birthday, he was celebrating with old friends and a driver having an epileptic fit drove into a crowd of people and Anthony was killed. I do not think my mom ever got over it. Johnathan completed his MD at Christ Church. I too wanted to stay in the medical field and follow my dad’s tradition. I was good with my hands and I passed in all the 3 A levels in physics, chemistry, and math. I planned on being an engineer. This is where I think the school system was problematic. If you changed your mind later on you would be without adequate education. I changed my mind and thought going to dentistry school would be the best of both worlds for both use of my hands and pursuing a medical degree. I thought dentistry would be great as you are not often confronting life and death. I had to go back and take biology for another year. This put me at a disadvantage. You had to decide what you wanted to do with your future at 15! You couldn’t change your mind. You could go directly into anesthesia school or dental school; we had no premed or pre-dental schools.
In the UK you are given a GAP year because there is so much pressure to achieve. Europe really pressures the students. I understand this is becoming more common practice in the U.S as well. During my GAP year I went to Israel, learned to speak and write Hebrew and attended a Kibbutz School. In Kibbutz School you learn to work the land, grow your own food and be self-reliant. My parents loved it. The school I attended was within a mile of the Syrian border but this was a time when things were peaceful. My parents are Jewish and considered Young Zionists as this was before the State of Israel existed.
My mom was one of the many speakers at Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner speaking out about needing our own Country.
I believe both the UK and the U.S are wonderful countries and treated people of my grandparents’ generation very well. They took in refugees from all over the world. My grandparents are from Plotz in Poland surviving the Pogrom, which is anti-Jewish riots that killed many Jews in Russia and Poland.
My grandparents had the courage to leave. They came to the UK in 1905. It was challenging for them. They had to learn a new language, which they did and sent their children to school. This had to be daunting. On my mother’s side, the folks settled in UK and established their roots there. My grandfather was very religious from Poland.
I celebrated my Bar mitzvah at 13 and you have to sing in Hebrew. This had great meaning for my grandfather. On the Sabbath he would walk everywhere and would never take a car. That devotion seems to dilute with each generation. We have a very nice Rabbi here in U. S. There is a loss from old traditions but we still believe.
Larry Gelbart, creator and producer of the TV series MASH and a co-writer of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” was a close friend with my mom. His wife Pat is a cousin of my mother and they came to America. America and England treated people of that generation very well. We all met in England in the 60s and had a warm family reunion, discussing all the persecutions, history and memories.
In London, my dental school was named Guys Hospital Dental School and it had developed anesthetic medicine and oral surgery during WWII due to all the dental injuries incurred during the war. I graduated from Guys. They had strong academics and difficult exams. It was a good school. England’s deficiencies were not trying to save teeth. If you look at the teeth of people from England, Ireland, Scotland etc., you often don’t see good teeth.
England is a good, peaceful, civilized country with no guns but there is a lack of preventative medicine and dentistry. We were strong in making dentures. A high percentage of population of England has partial or complete dentures, maybe greater than 30%. This is going back to the 1950s.
I needed orthodontia work. England did not do well at this. U.S emphasized gum health and preserving existing teeth for all your life. When I finished dental school in England, I wanted to come to the U.S. to do my DDS degree. There are two different degrees based on different philosophies so there are two different undergraduate degrees which were complimentary.
Several of my colleagues went to US just for a couple months to train and came back with expertise to practice more sophisticated dentistry in England. This was in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Dentistry was most advanced in the US in California, why you ask? Because of Hollywood. The stars’ smile was their income! Every detail you could care about in teeth would be addressed because of Hollywood photos. Their teeth had to be perfect for those up-close movie shots. Everything was developed there and now we are all concerned with maintenance for tooth health, gums and even heart health attributed to teeth and gums.
Guys Hospital contributed $1,000 for me to come to the US to learn. My parents also contributed. This was 1970. We are not considered doctors in the UK. In 1972 I got my DDS in the US and then I went back to England to teach at Guys Hospital.
I got very poor grades at USC in fillings and tooth repair, crowns and bridges etc. I didn’t do well because of the English system. In the US, I didn’t have to open a book. I did great on the academic side. I was getting 90-95%. Friends from France, Yugoslavia, Philippines and China, would say about my grades, ‘how did you do that Larry’?
We had very good instructors. It took me 18 months to pass my State of CA board. USC had designed this program for foreign students and you kept going as long as it took. It was the best dental school in the US. I was so fortunate to specialize. I knew dentures. I learned restoration work and gum work. I learned root canals and became efficient at it. When I came back and taught, I also maintained a private practice emphasizing root canals. I was one of the few who could do the US style of root canal treatment from the 1970s in England. Basically, few could do or pay for root canal in England. Few people tried to save teeth in England due to the government system. There was a different emphasis and you just lost your teeth and had dentures made. You can see the difference when you see the peoples’ teeth from England, Scotland and Ireland and can tell dentistry was not a priority for them or they just could not afford reconstructive work or did not know about it. If you could pay for it privately you could get a root canal but the government did not pay for it.
Private patients would pay me which is different than the government system, which would offer to pay you for a partial denture. Many could not pay for the sophisticated work.
I admire the National Health Care system in England. My brother who is a doctor in the US has to work to get funding. It becomes a very bureaucratic search for grants and funds in contrast to the British system. This was not an issue in England. My dad got paid well and worked hard and he paid to get me to study at Guys hospital.
USC drained my reserves. In 1972-1977 I stayed in England performing many root canals. People now wanted to save their teeth instead of losing them and having dentures. I then came back to the US for endodontic studies. I entered a high-pressure program at UCLA. USC is a private university and has a customized DDS course for foreign dentists. You stay until you meet the standards. UCLA didn’t have a customized dental program for foreign students. Thus, this program did not offer the freedom of a customized course to foreign students which gave credits for training they had received in their own country and could continue until they met required proficiencies.
A big turning point in my life was whether I would come back to the UK. My friends and patients told me they needed me and England’s dentistry did as well. Few could perform the dentistry I performed in my US training. My parents wanted me to come home as well but ultimately, I decided to stay in the U.S. I have no regrets.
I recall driving through the tunnel from Santa Monica to Malibu where you can see the sand and the coastline and it reminded me of those vacation days near the Mediterranean Sea. The happiness we shared then. I remember it well and knew I had to live near the coast. My previous life influenced me to stay.
If I had gone back, I would have been a big fish in a little pond. I would have had a lot of business. We were located near a U.S. Air Force base and all their medical and dental work was paid by the Air Force. I had people coming from this base and traveling from all over Europe including France, Spain and Italy just to come to an American trained dentist.
The 1980s was a great decade for me and my family. Though I had made the decision to stay in the Sates my family could travel here often. I lived in Northridge and had a beautiful home. My brother was in Lancaster so we had great family get togethers every year. That ended in 1989 when my dad had a heart attack visiting me and died here. It was a joyous time, my parents visiting their sons, all together but my mom had to take my dad back to England. My dad had kept my mom pretty dependent through her debilitating arthritis and she became more immobile. With him gone she eventually had to go into a nursing home which made the last two years very tough on her. Family there were very supportive but she was miserable without her husband.
I bought my home in 1981 for $139k in Northridge. It was 1600 square feet, 3 bed, two bath on a third of an acre with beautiful gardens, a swimming pool and orchard. America is the land of opportunity as I was only in my second year of employment in the US and had all this. I taught in Northridge at USC for both undergraduate and graduate studies, I loved teaching and teaching helped me get my green card. You could not get a green card for dentistry, US had enough dentists but teaching was my way in. My citizenship came in 1995. I took my time and it felt morecomplete. The foreign student program at USC sponsored me and I continued to teach there.
I am kind of a mix as I am a lover of England and the U.S. I am not into private practice that many seem to be driven by.
I have this idealism of money not being involved in your career. I have a special respect for people who work when money is not involved. I still admire the National Health Care System. There is such a sharp division with people who have a different view. I liked Trump’s policies and what he was doing. I did not like his bedside manner.
America had a great reputation when John F. Kennedy was alive and President. Everyone in England loved JFK. All countries loved the U.S. On small TV screens in black and white we would watch adventures such as Hopalong Cassidy and other Hollywood films that we identified as America.
It has been an adventure and I feel very fortunate when I look back at my life.
Interview with Laurence Cree July 19, 2021