Aug 31, 2014 12:55 PM by MIKE FRANCINGUES
NEW IBERIA, La. (AP) - For years, Kenneth Boudreaux was the tooth fairy for schoolchildren across Acadiana.
He didn't pay them for baby teeth but went from school to school, introduced as the tooth fairy and explaining why they needed to take care of their teeth and how to do it.
"I was in Kroger's one day and this little boy ran up to me and recognized me from being the tooth fairy," said the Air Force veteran who became Louisiana's first licensed dental hygienist in 1974. "He said, 'Don't move,' and ran off and brought his mom over and said, 'This is the tooth fairy!'"
Boudreaux, now 65, developed the tooth fairy project with a friend while in dental hygiene school.
"We had to come up with a community program," he said. "You could go and present it to the community. My partner and I developed the Tooth Fairy Program. I'd go to schools and lecture students up to a third grade level on proper tooth care."
The program continued for eight or nine years, said Boudreaux, who retired in July.
He said male dental hygienists are still rare, making up only 2.8 percent of the nation's total.
"It's surprising. I really thought we'd be at 10 percent or more by now," he said.
Boudreaux has been fighting the stereotype of dental hygienists as women since he first enrolled in hygiene school, but takes it with good humor.
"When they sent my application that told you all of the requirements, the descriptive terms were all female, 'she' and 'her'," he said, laughing. "It came in addressed to Mrs. Boudreaux ... So I called to be on the safe side. I needed them to know I wasn't coming in as a female."
Boudreaux became a hygienist by luck of the draw after he joined the Air Force in 1968.
"Now, you can request a certain job description, but back then they just dumped you in it, and I got dumped in the dental profession."
He had to start as a dental assistant, he said, but soon cross-trained into dental hygiene, working for the Air Force in Shreveport until 1972. After his service was up, he decided to stay in the profession. Since the military wasn't accredited for private dental work, Boudreax applied to Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas.
With more than 40 years under his belt, Boudreaux has seen the transformation of the dental industry before his eyes, he said.
"It's amazing to see the difference in the 40 years from when I started to where we are now," he said. "Technically you still clean teeth the same, but all the technology has changed so much. X-rays, for example, have gone from hand-developing X-rays to digital, and they use much less radiation now.
"The young lady who took my place is fresh out of school," he said. "There's so much more knowledge than 40 years ago with all the updates. It's just a shame that you can't take the 40 years of experience and transfer that into the person with all the new knowledge."
It's also given him plenty of time to get to know his patients and their families, he said. Some families he's seen more for generations.
"I've seen four generations of about three families, from the great-grandfather on down. I've seen a lot of families for two and three generations," he said. "You share a lot with people over time. You go the through births, marriages, divorces, deaths to everything. In a one-hour period twice a year, you learn a lot about people."
Boudreaux always enjoyed working with kids, he said, adding they always say the funniest things.
"I like to ask them how their school is going," he said, cracking a smile. "One kid came in, and I asked who was his good friend. He said 'Josh.' One of the girls I worked with had a son named Josh who went to the same school. So I asked what his last name was. He said, 'Mr. Ken, I'm not sure, but I think his last name is Uwa.' I said, 'That's an unusual name.' He said, 'Yea but every once in a while the teacher uses his full name, Josh-ua.'"
However, working with children can also be heart-breaking. He said the hardest part of his job was when parents couldn't teach their children proper care.
"It's hard to have a child come in crying because they hurt so bad. It's not nearly as often as it used to be," he said, noting the difference advances like toothpastes and mouthwashes with fluoride have made. "We get maybe half a dozen a year now, much less than it was. We have 25-year-olds that never had a cavity and never will have one because they did all the right things."
Boudreaux is looking forward to spending time with his wife, Botella "Bo" Brown Boudreaux, and his two daughters, one of whom is dental hygienist, in retirement, he said.
"I got a lot of honey-dos and and honey-don'ts and I want to keep those even," he laughed. "My wife and I have a garden. I do a lot of hunting and fishing. I like to do all that stuff.