Ask Bob Wolcott, who has been teaching dentistry for 46 years, when he plans to retire and his response is quick and determined: "Not until they kick me out or I can't get out of bed anymore."
It's that drive that recently earned the still-active professor emeritus two prestigious awards that bridge his career. In June, the Class of '97 presented him with the coveted Teacher of the Year award. And on Nov. 1, his students from decades earlier recognized him as the 1997 Honorary Alumnus of the Year.
The two awards are the latest in a prominent UCLA career that began in 1962, when Wolcott joined the fledgling School of Dentistry. In the two years before students arrived, Wolcott and the small faculty helped Dean Reidar Sognnaes get the new school ready for its first class in 1964.
"Everyone was enthusiastic because everything was new," he recalled. "The students were excited to be part of the charter classes. And almost all the dental faculty were working their first teaching jobs.
"The faculty and students were on a first-name basis," said Wolcott. "We played baseball after classes, went bowling and had parties. We were family."
Inspired by his dentist father, Wolcott enrolled in dental school at Marquette University in 1937. To make ends meet, he worked three jobs between semesters: washing dishes in a restaurant, shoveling coal into a furnace and as an attendant in a mental sanitarium. He graduated from dental school just before World War II. He joined the Navy, where he served as a teacher and head of the U.S. Naval Dental School in Bethesda, Md., among other assignments. While running the Navy's dental-research laboratory in Illinois, Wolcott met Lt. Bob Krasny, who became an inseparable friend and future UCLA colleague.
But Wolcott's primary interest is his students, and they love him in return. In 1987, UCLA's Epsilon Zeta chapter of the Omicron Kappa Upsilon (OKU) honor society created a special award in admiration of Wolcott's devotion to the school. Krasny presents the Dr. Robert Wolcott Award each year to a distinguished faculty member.
Even a battle with neck cancer hasn't sapped Wolcott's youthful vitality. The 83-year-old still drives to campus on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, where he teaches restorative dentistry and often arrives early to tutor students in the clinic.
"People think I'm crazy," he admitted, with a self-deprecating grin. "Because on Thursday, I start looking forward to coming to work again on Tuesday."