UTHSC College of Dentistry Honors Drs. Phil Wenk and Justin Towner With 2016 Outstanding Alumnus Awards

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The University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) College of Dentistry Alumni Association will give its 2016 Outstanding Alumnus Awards, the association’s highest honor, to the chief operating officer of Tennessee’s largest dental insurance company, and to a longtime Memphis periodontist who helped found the association.

Philip Wenk, DDS ’77, president and CEO of Delta Dental of Tennessee, and Justin D. Towner III, DDS ’45, will receive the prestigious awards on Friday, March 4, at the Awards and Reunion Luncheon during the William F. Slagle Dental Meeting, which runs March 4-6 in Memphis. The presentation will be made in front of the nearly 200 alumni, peers and friends in attendance at the luncheon.

“Both Dr. Towner and Dr. Wenk are true ambassadors for UTHSC and the College of Dentistry,” said Tim Lanier, assistant vice chancellor for Alumni Affairs. “Their impact on the college and the dental profession as a whole is hard to measure. We are fortunate to be able to call them our own.”

Phil Wenk, DDS '77
Phil Wenk, DDS ’77

Even as a student, Dr. Wenk showed an interest in leadership by serving as vice president and president of the UT Student Association, and as a member of the Student Government Executive Council.

After his graduation from the College of Dentistry, Dr. Wenk transitioned from student leader to small-town dentist, practicing in Clinton, Tennessee. His community involvement there included civic organizations, local government and athletics. These roles provided the perfect training ground for his current position, which places strong emphasis on corporate citizenship.

Dr. Wenk served in private practice until 1997, when he accepted the role of chief operating officer at Delta Dental of Tennessee, eventually moving into the chief leadership role in 2000. His many accomplishments with the company include enhancing the partnership between Delta Dental and his alma mater through engagement and charitable support.

Under his leadership at Delta Dental, the company has increased revenues nearly fourfold. As a result of its success, Dr. Wenk has ensured that the company maintains a focus on giving back to the communities it serves. Delta Dental has become the single largest donor to the UTHSC College of Dentistry, with more than $13 million given for capital improvements and scholarships since 1998 by Delta Dental and its new philanthropic arm, the Smile180 Foundation, created in 2014.

The Smile180 Foundation, named for the transformative power of a healthy smile to change lives, is dedicated to providing resources for free and reduced-cost clinics, children’s hospitals, and the state’s dental colleges. The program builds off a 2014 initiative that provided more than $5 million to these and other community organizations. Over the past five years, the company has provided more than $12.7 million in statewide grants and community support.

Dr. Wenk’s professional memberships include the International College of Dentists, the American College of Dentists, the Academy of General Dentistry, the American Dental Association and the Tennessee Dental Association. He is the board chair for the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl and the Brentwood Country Club. In addition, he currently serves on boards for Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, and Civic Bank. He is also on a committee for the American Red Cross, Middle Tennessee Division.

“There are so many really good people they could have chosen, it’s very humbling,” Dr. Wenk said. “To me, it’s nice to get the award, but I also know that the success that Delta Dental has had, and the people of Tennessee and the dentists who support us, have probably really made that award possible for me.”

Dr. Wenk lives in Brentwood, Tennessee, with his wife, Brenda. They have two children and three grandchildren.

Justin Towner, DDS '45
Justin Towner, DDS ’45

Dr. Towner was one of four dentists who initiated the formation of the UT Dental Alumni Association in the early 1960s, and served as its president from 1965 to 1966. He was instrumental in establishing an annual alumni meeting, which would evolve into the Mid-South Dental Congress, now known as the William F. Slagle Dental Meeting.

A lifelong Memphian, Dr. Towner attended Memphis City Schools, Washington and Lee University, and graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Dentistry in 1954. Shortly thereafter, he served in the U.S. Air Force for two years. After returning to Memphis, he practiced periodontics for 44 years and taught in the Department of Periodontics at the UT College of Dentistry for 15 years.

As author and co-author, he published several articles on clinical periodontics and occlusion, and contributed continuing education courses and programs. His professional memberships include the Memphis Dental Society, where he served as president and received the Humanitarian Award. He also served in the Tennessee Dental Association, the American Dental Association, the Southern Academy of Periodontology, and the American Academy of Periodontology.

A member of Second Presbyterian Church, he has served as elder and clerk of the session. He has enjoyed teaching Sunday School, and has served on numerous committees — most notably the World Missions committee — and made several trips to Haiti and Belize as a dental missionary.

For Dr. Towner, the most rewarding aspect of his career is the opportunity to teach students and young dentists the importance of including the treatment of periodontal disease into their practices. He says the most rewarding aspects of his life are his wife of 61 years, Ginny, his three children and their spouses, and his seven grandchildren.

When speaking of the award, Dr. Towner said, “I feel so honored and humbled to receive it. I know others who have received it, and I feel like I should carry their bags, rather than walk beside them. I owe where I am today to the College of Dentistry, and I hope I have given back to it.”

The mission of the William F. Slagle Dental Meeting is to advance the delivery of quality dental care by providing dental teams with a premier educational opportunity. In accordance with this mission, the Slagle Dental Meeting is committed to offering extensive continuing education courses, commercial exhibits and additional educational programs that advance the growth and development of the dental profession.

The Slagle Dental Meeting is sponsored by the UTHSC College of Dentistry Alumni Association. All profits from the Slagle Dental Meeting are used to support dental education programs at the University of Tennessee.