Thirty years ago, Spencer N. Frankl became the second dean of Boston University's School of Dental Medicine and set about making a good thing better.
"He really transformed the Goldman School of Dentistry," said Dr. Aram Chobanian, president emeritus of Boston University. "He took it from a small institution that was providing graduate dental education and built it during his 30-year tenure into one of the leading dental schools in the country. And he did that by introducing many kinds of innovations in dental education, building a strong research program, and recruiting strong faculty and developing them."
He did so with a personal warmth that made whomever he was speaking with feel as if their conversation was the most important moment of his day, colleagues and family members said. Dr. Frankl, a pediatric dentist who helped generations of children learn that a visit to the dentist was nothing to fear, died Saturday at his Brookline home. He was 73 and had been diagnosed with a brain tumor about a year ago.
The length of his tenure means "there are very few academic leaders who will have the impact on an institution that Spencer Frankl had on the Goldman School of Dental Medicine," Robert A. Brown, BU's president, said in a statement.
And yet, said Dr. Frankl's daughter Elizabeth of Brookline, "He had no arrogance. He saw everything he did professionally as a team effort. In our family, he was the patriarch; he was our center and will remain our center. But he really felt like it was all about being a unit. That's a tremendous gift."
Dr. Henry Goldman - the dental school's founder, first dean, and namesake - chose Dr. Frankl to be his successor. Former BU president John Silber said that based on Goldman's advice he "confidently named" the founder's protege to the post. In July, Dr. Frankl became the longest-serving dean at BU.
"Spencer's deanship was notable for his unrelenting and highly successful efforts to build the research capabilities of the school of dentistry and to integrate its programs into the Boston Medical Center," Silber wrote in a tribute to a longtime friend who had been the dentist for some of Silber's children. "He emphasized the pursuit of excellence in advanced medical research and in the compassionate care for patients."
Chobanian said Dr. Frankl "also established community partnerships that provided not only sites for dental education for students, but also very important dental care programs for underprivileged and underserved communities, including for children with AIDS."
Dr. Jeffrey Hutter, senior associate dean at the dental school, said one of the most recent projects to come to fruition under Dr. Frankl is an institute BU is establishing in Dubai.
"He liked to talk about the dental school being beyond just the dental school building," Hutter said. "He worked on the philosophy of a school without walls. That's how the school actually grew."
Before the international stretch halfway around the world, Hutter said, Dr. Frankl found ways to use classrooms and offices in other buildings on the medical school campus to expand the dental school's programs and research.
"He was a special person, and he left a great legacy at the dental school," said Marshall Sloane, who just stepped down as chairman of the dental school's Board of Visitors. "It's a real loss to the university."
Dr. Frankl grew up in Philadelphia, where as a youth he became friends with Rhoda Stein. They married nearly 53 years ago and had known each other for 60 years.
He graduated in 1958 from the Temple University School of Dentistry in Philadelphia and came to Boston for postdoctoral fellowships, joining the faculty at Tufts University in 1961. Three years later, he moved to BU's dental school and founded the department of pediatric dentistry.
He also served as chief of the pediatric dental service at what was then Beth Israel Hospital.
As he became assistant dean and then associate dean, Dr. Frankl developed BU's doctor of dental medicine degree program, which was launched in 1972. Before then, the dental school had only trained specialists through postdoctoral programs.
Even as he led the school, Dr. Frankl continued to see patients at his private practice in Brookline.
"He treated thousands and thousands of children in the Boston area, and people brought their children to him from all over," his wife said. "He always said it was a wonderful thing that parents brought to him their most valuable possession. If children were afraid of the dentist, they weren't after going to see him."
Said his daughter Catherine Sarkis of Brookline: "He was a very magnetic, charismatic, passionate, expressive person" who placed his family first amid his many responsibilities. "When we called him at work, he would pick up the phone. When we needed him, he would be there."
"He was utterly available and the family was sacred to him, it really was," Elizabeth Frankl said. "So even though he did have a very public life, anything family-related was the most important thing."
At work and at home, his daughters said, Dr. Frankl could turn a conversation with any person or group of people into something special.
"When he looked at you, he was completely yours," Elizabeth said. "You were the focal point."
During the past year, since he became ill, Dr. Frankl turned more to his family, and his family to him.
His children, grandson, and two granddaughters visited daily.
"He wanted to live each day as fully as possible, for all of them as well as for himself," his wife said. "He had a tremendous love of life, a real joie de vivre. His smile lit up a room."
"We will walk around with him within us for our lifetime," Elizabeth said.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow in Temple Israel in Boston. Burial is private.