Sixteen years after Susan Shulman Tessel lost her father, she sat on a Southern college campus Wednesday night and couldn't stop thinking about him. Surrounded by hundreds in a packed ballroom, she cried because he was missing. He should have been there with her and her mother. He deserved to be.
The late Irving Shulman was the only Jewish man to enter Emory University's School of Dentistry in 1948. That was the same year someone else came to the school: the newly appointed dean, John E. Buhler.
After one academic year, Shulman flunked out. Buhler stayed on for 13 years, leading what some Jewish students would refer to as a "reign of terror." Between 1948 and 1961, when Buhler left, 65% of Jewish students either failed out or were forced to repeat up to two years of coursework in the four-year program.
Those who lasted often paid. There were insults from professors such as "dirty Jew," accusations by faculty of cheating and questions from the dean like, "Why do you Jews want to be dentists? You don't have it in your hands."
Tessel's dad earned the distinction of being the first who failed.
His daughter, who lives in New York, heard him tell stories about the constant reminders of how awful he was. His molds of teeth -- which he was so proud of -- would either get crushed by hands or grades. Convinced he wasn't being treated fairly, a non-Jewish classmate agreed to turn in one of Shulman's molds under his name. Shulman's handiwork earned that student an A-minus.
"At least he knew he didn't make it up," Tessel said.
Her late father gave up his dentistry dream and moved on to pharmacy school. But, she said, being at Emory last week would have helped him make sense of what had transpired. That's when 19 former Jewish dental students who had experienced that era came together and finally received the apology and recognition they had never thought possible.
"He didn't have the benefit of knowing he wasn't alone."
'A fraternity of silence'
Three years after Shulman was dubbed a failure at the end of his first academic year, Perry Brickman got his surprise letter from the dean telling him the same. Unlike Shulman, though, he had never been told he wasn't doing well.
Stunned. Embarrassed. Brickman was both. But he wasn't beaten down enough to give up on dentistry and was accepted to the dental school at the University of Tennessee, where he graduated fourth in his class. He would go on to have a 43-year career as a respected oral surgeon in Atlanta. He knew he was no failure. He also knew he wasn't alone. He was one of four Jewish men who entered the school in 1951; two years later they were all gone.
Brickman, 79, wasn't one to bring up the past. In 2000, he went to a reunion of his Jewish fraternity brothers from their Emory undergrad days. It turned out eight of the men in the room had been scarred by the same dental program, but it's not something they talked about. Brickman's wife, Shirley, would later start calling the former dental students "a fraternity of silence."
It would be years before that would change.
In 2006, Emory University celebrated its 30th anniversary of Jewish studies. Eric Goldstein, a Jewish history professor, set up the exhibit to coincide with the event. He called it, "Jews of Emory: Faces of a Changing University."
Most of the exhibit was a celebration of the campus' Jewish life, Goldstein said, but a small section jumped out at Brickman.
He stared at statistics, a bar graph that illustrated what happened at the dental school between 1948 and 1961. The image had been featured in a chapter of "Some of My Best Friends...," a book published by the Anti-Defamation League in the early 1960s. Like a skyscraper among short buildings, he said, the bar showing the numbers of Jews who failed out of the school or repeated coursework towered above all others. He couldn't believe what he was seeing.
The visual highlighted what Brickman always suspected about the dental school leadership and how that period was handled at Emory: "I wasn't a failure. They were a failure."
He knew there were stories behind those numbers -- not just of those who hadn't made it but also of those who did. Between the statistics and a conversation with a still-burdened classmate, Brickman set out on a path to find them all.
A month before one man got his degree, he was forced to stand before the dean and assembled faculty for an hourlong dressing down. Later, one of the professors pulled the student aside and apologized, saying he had a wife and children to think about and had no choice but to play along.
Another said the day he got his diploma he felt like he'd been released from prison. A third repeated what a professor used to call him, "my little black sheep," and then, bothered by the memory, muttered under his breath, "son of a bitch."
These men said they were the "lucky" ones; the ones who actually made it through to earn degrees from the school. The 39 Jews who Brickman said enrolled during the Buhler era were all men; few women attended the school back then. Of that bunch, a dozen flunked out. Only three of those 12 became dentists. At least 15 of the Jewish dental students who lasted were forced to repeat coursework -- and in some cases a year or two of study.
Art Burns, 80, of Jacksonville, Florida, flunked out in 1953 but went on to be first in his class at Temple University's dental school. The retired orthodontist recalled later bumping into the Emory dean in an Army base dental lab. Buhler looked at him and said, "Burns, I'd recognize that nose anywhere."
Another who didn't fail -- but who Buhler insisted didn't have the hands for dentistry -- found himself being asked to treat dental school faculty throughout his senior year. Crowns, restorations, fillings. You name it, Ronald Goldstein did it.