Horbal x 3 - our very own dental dynasty

Posted on Thu, 06/01/2017 - 11:30am

By Neil Warner

HorbalsFew family businesses are able to persevere through three generations in this era of geographically scattered families and short-lived businesses, but our own Captain’s Walk mall has been home to one such success story – surviving and thriving for 45 years.

The Horbal dental office officially transferred to its third generation at the end of February when Jack Horbal retired after 36 years, and his daughter, Kerstin, took over. Kerstin has been part of the practice for the past eight years.

“I’ll miss working with Kerstin and commuting together,” Jack said. He’ll also miss the daily interaction with his many loyal patients whose word-of-mouth recommendations bring in new patients, he said. “The beauty is … I can always come back.”

Besides daughter Kerstin, Jack and his wife, Carlin, have a son, Matthew, a 35-year-old emergency room doctor in Las Vegas. Matthew loves to climb mountains and hike, serves as a medical director for several national parks, and has developed a course in wilderness medicine.

The Horbal family has been an anchor in the Captain’s Walk since 1972, when Aldona and Benjamin Horbal opened a dental practice just as the mall was being completed. The Horbals, along with their two sons, Mark and Jack, and Aldona’s sister’s family of four, had immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1964, when Poland was part of the Soviet Communist bloc. Jack was 9½.

“My parents told us we were going on a short trip across the water,” Jack recalled about their departure from Poland. His parents feared that their intention to emigrate might leak out if they told anyone, even their sons. In those days, it was very difficult for an entire family to get visas from the Polish government, because the Communist regime wanted to prevent its citizens from fleeing. The boys were told the truth about their trip once they boarded the ship headed for North America.

Aldona and Benjamin had operated a dental practice in their home in Poland, but had to work several jobs to make ends meet. “I saw oranges occasionally, and a banana maybe once,” Jack said of the scarcity of consumer goods available in Poland in those days. “Everything was done under the table.”

After settling in the Chicago area, the Horbals set about to resume their careers in dentistry. Northwestern University offered Benjamin a position as associate professor in oral surgery, where he taught dental students. Aldona began teaching dental hygienists at Northwestern before embarking on a 2½-year program to earn her second dental degree, allowing her to establish a private practice in this country.

In June 1971, after having lived in Rogers Park, the Horbals became the 20th residents of Malibu East, on the 27th floor.

“We had been watching the Dunbar project for a long time, being in the same neighborhood,” Benjamin said, in an article in Breezes from Malibu East, an early newsletter for our property. “One day we just decided the thing to do was to buy a condominium at Malibu East.”

In 1972, Aldona Horbal moved her private practice from suburban Niles to the Captain’s Walk, offering evening hours for the convenience of residents who worked during the day. Benjamin made himself available to remove wisdom teeth in the evenings after teaching during the day.

Jack has happy memories of the five years he spent living at Malibu East, which began in his late teens.

“My brother (now a software engineer) and I explored the building while it was still under construction. We were even able to get up on the roof. There was a fantastic view but quite scary because of the height and the very high winds. We first lived in 27C, then in 27A (Jack had the easternmost bedroom). I have fond memories of swimming in the pool, playing handball and racquetball and, of course, great views. I especially remember looking down to see huge salmon swimming in the clear water off of Glenlake, admiring the huge moon rising over the lake, and watching the lightning shows during summer thunderstorms from our balcony.”

Jack attended Sullivan High School and the University of Illinois at Chicago, but following his parents into dentistry wasn’t a given for him.

“I was finishing a (pre-med) program in pathology (at UIC). Then I thought about (a career as a dentist) and said to myself, ‘This could really be cool.’”

That decision led to what now has become a third-generation family business.

“In 1976 I married the love of my life, Carlin, and moved out to a Ravenswood apartment,” Jack said. “When the kids came along, we moved to Winnetka for the schools, and we currently live in Glenview.”

Jack finished dental school at UIC in 1981 and joined his parents’ practice in the Captain’s Walk. His parents retired in 1986 and moved to Florida. Benjamin died in 1994 and Aldona last year. Her joyful paintings grace the walls of the dental office downstairs.

Kerstin joined the practice in June 2009, working side by side with her father.

Thirty-six years after seeing his first patient, Jack decided to try retirement.

“I am embracing retirement, having more time to pursue other interests,” Jack said. “I continue to volunteer with the Chicago Dental Society, where I mediate cases between patients and doctors.

“For the past 20 years, I’ve been active and will continue to serve on a special federal team, DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team), part of the National Disaster Medical System. The function of our team is to identify human remains, victims of disaster. I assist in these efforts as a ‘forensic odontologist.’ Other team members are pathologists, anthropologists, radiologists, fingerprint and DNA experts and so on. Over the years, I have been deployed to a train crash in Bourbonnais, Illinois; the World Trade Center in New York (after 9/11); to Gulfport, Mississippi, and St. Gabriel, Louisiana, for Hurricane Katrina; and to Haiti for the earthquake.

“We are volunteers in that we volunteer to go when asked to deploy, but once we agree to deploy, we are paid for our efforts.” In the aftermath of 9/11, Jack worked 12-hour shifts, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“The atmosphere is charged, very electric,” Jack said of his DMORT deployments. “It’s an adrenaline rush for two weeks, working with great people, and you know they have your back.”

Jack appreciates the challenges presented by his DMORT work, since it combines two of his passions: dentistry and forensics. Once or twice a year he undergoes training, which involves repetitive practice, such as taking full-mouth X-rays and full-mouth charting. Computer software can compare the tooth-by-tooth charts to ante-mortem dental records.

“Dental is the fastest, most economical way of identifying human remains,” Jack said, adding that most Americans have, at some point in their lives, had X-rays taken of their teeth. Without such ante-mortem dental records, identifying remains becomes much more difficult.

Jack Horbal has other interests, two of which are shared by many American men of a certain age, but the other one … not so much.

“My other interest lies in old cars,” Jack said. “My current love is a 1965 Cadillac DeVille convertible. We (Carlin and Jack) will be going on the National Cadillac Club’s weeklong drive from Chicago to St. Louis along Route 66 in June.

“I also have an esoteric interest in collecting liquid fuel irons. These are regular irons for ironing; however, they have little fuel tanks and actually burn gasoline or other fuels inside the iron to provide heat. I will be giving a presentation later this year in Pittsburgh, at our iron collectors convention.

“Last, but certainly not least, I have been blessed with two beautiful granddaughters (ages two and nine months) and enjoy watching them grow.”

Amid his active schedule, Jack has a special set of dates circled on his calendar.

“One of the highlights of the year, for sure, will be a trip planned for September,” Jack said. “My son, Matthew, sent me an email a few months ago. It was completely out of the blue, totally unexpected, and brought tears to my eyes as I read it. In it he wrote, ‘Dad, I’ve been thinking. You and I need to go on an adventure. Take me to Poland and show me where you came from.’ So, we’re going this September. I am thrilled, first of all because it was completely my son’s idea, and secondly because I have not been back for 53 years.”

Jack and Carlin have a farm in Wisconsin that they consider a second home. They rent out the land for growing corn and beans, and a neighbor keeps dairy cows there. In winter they enjoy cross-country skiing, and during the rest of the year, they relish the mundane tasks of rural life, such as mowing the grass – a 5½-hour job. These getaways provide “peace between the ears,” Jack said.

Back home in Glenview, Carlin babysits her two granddaughters three days a week. She also works at the Wagner Farm, one of the last working dairy farms in Cook County and open to the public for recreation and learning. One of her jobs there is driving a team of draft horses. “I sleep with a teamster,” Jack said with a smile.

“I fondly look back on my time at Malibu East, and especially all the great people I’ve met there, first as a resident and then professionally, over the last 46 years of my life,” Jack said.

Who knows? Perhaps there will be a fourth-generation Horbal joining the practice one of these days.

“It’s only 24 years away,” said one proud grandfather who has entertained the possibility.