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Dentist is all class with bit of fun

The longest-practicing dentist in west Pasco is an old-fashioned gentleman with a silly side.

By JODIE TILLMAN
Published March 15, 2007


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NEW PORT RICHEY - Niles Kinnunen is a dentist. A Rotarian. A past recipient of one chamber's "Outstanding Citizen Award."

But don't hold all that respectability against him.

Once, about 15 years ago, his friend John Stewart returned from vacation on the St. Johns River with a set of toothless alligator jaws he bought at a marina.

The gummy gator came up in conversation. So one evening, Kinnunen invited Stewart to his office, after hours.

The two men had a little bourbon. And then the dentist, who for 43 years has stared into the mouths of some of Pasco's most prominent citizens, went to work making a set of fearsome alligator teeth.

Always professional - but with an appreciation of more whimsical matters. That's how friends describe 71-year-old Kinnunen, the longest-practicing dentist in west Pasco.

"He's always under control," Stewart said in one interview, but joked later after telling the alligator story: "He's not afraid to do something a little wacky."

* * *

This is another phrase that often comes up about Kinnunen: old-fashioned gentleman.

He enunciates, does not interrupt, carries himself like a ballroom dancer. He wears silk ties and ivory cuff links and unwrinkled slacks. He appears to have sauntered out of an old movie, leaving behind only the fedora and the storefront with gold-leaf lettering on the window.

"I've never seen him in jeans or cutoffs," Stewart said, "even at his house."

It is safe to say that elegantly attired, well-mannered dentists are rarely mentioned in history books. But the modern-day history of downtown New Port Richey would require at least a reference to Kinnunen.

He was the fourth dentist in west Pasco County, coming to practice in 1964 with his father. He built the Mediterranean-style office on Main Street nearly 25 years ago.

He showed, his friends say, that you can build in downtown. He showed, too, that you could endure and become a part of a community.

"He's been as steady as a gold filling," said city resident and patient Thad Lowery.

Kinnunen is married to a vivacious blond named Cherry his first wife, Kathleen, died of a brain tumor in 1982 and the two are prominent supporters of cultural and artistic events, often holding caroling parties and "Famous Lovers" costume parties at their Jasmine Drive home. This year Cherry played Gloria Swanson and Kinnunen played her lover, Joseph P. Kennedy. To complete his look, Kinnunen made a set of Kennedy-esque teeth.

* * *

Kinnunen and his father, with whom he shared a full name, were from Ohio. Kinnunen's mother died when he was a baby, and his paternal grandmother, who spoke only Finnish, came to help take care of the family. (Kinnunen is fluent in Finnish and German.)

Back in Ohio, Niles Sr. worked in his office four days a week, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Niles Jr. hung out at the office after school. He watched his father work and saw his destiny.

"I was fascinated," he said. "I always said that was what I imagined myself doing."

His father, seeking warmer climes, moved to New Port Richey in 1955 and opened an office. At that time, the younger Kinnunen was headed to University of Michigan.

After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army's Dental Corps, Kinnunen ended up working with his father in New Port Richey in 1964.

Those were the days when New Port Richey was a very small town surrounded by lots of wilderness and, later, shiny new subdivisions in Holiday, he remembered.

"We were booked several months in advance," he said. Around the mid 1970s, he said, more dentists started moving in and the competitive groundwork was laid.

These days Kinnunen shows off his teeth-whitening machine and porcelain veneers. Cosmetic dentistry is changing some aspects of the field, he said, and he wants to keep up.

But he also showed off his father's old wooden sign, now enclosed in glass and hanging on the wall of his office. He also likes to look back.

At 71, he does not yet feel the beckoning of retirement. For those who admire his ability to pick at their teeth one day and dine with them the next, that's good news.

"He's easy to have as a friend," said Lowery, "and good to have as a dentist."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this story. Jodie Tillman can be reached at (727) 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 15, 2007, 00:09:09]


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