Just before noon on Sunday, August 14, Mississippi's dental community suffered a great loss. Six University of Mississippi alumni were killed in a plane crash in Alabama. Four were graduates from the School of Dentistry. They were making their way home from a dentistry continuing education event held in Florida.
On board were Drs. Jason and Lea Farese; Dr. Austin and Angie Poole; and Dr. Michael and Kim Perry. Together they leave behind multiple practices, hundreds of patients, colleagues, friends and family. Most heartbreaking is the loss suffered by their combined 11 children.
The dental community has rallied together in an attempt to fill the void left by these special lives. Fellow alumni have stepped in to keep practices open and staff employed, and a fund has been started to provide for the children's care and education.
Drs. Jason and Lea Farese
Jason and Lea Farese met in dental school and were married in 2002. He was a Vanderbilt graduate, captain of the baseball team his senior year, and she graduated from Belhaven. The two were a perfect pair - of contrasts.
“He was like the fiery guy, and she was like the calming of the waters,” said Dr. David Duncan, professor emeritus in the Department of Care Planning and Restorative Sciences. “They just meshed together really well.”
Duncan recalls Jason coming to him during dental school for some personal advice. “He was wringing his hands, and he said, 'I just don't know. I'm thinking about asking Lea to marry me.' And I said, 'Duh! Yeah! Y'all are perfect for each other.'”
Lea worked in public health for a few years while Jason worked on getting a private practice started. The two joined in practice as Farese Family Dentistry in Oxford. They were members of the Tri Lakes Dental Study Club, which includes a coverage group to provide clinic coverage for members who were injured or ill and unable to practice for a time.
Dr. Thomas Hodge, a 1995 graduate of the School of Dentistry, said that both Lea and Jason had participated in helping cover two other dental practices since the time the group was formed. Now it was time for the group to give back to the Fareses. Hodge said that it was the first time the group had covered for a death in the dental community.
“We tried to get in there and keep their normal business hours going, keep the staff in place until the family could sell the practice,” Hodge said.
However, the person who traveled the farthest to help out was not a member of the Tri Lakes group. Dr. Lauren Timmons, who graduated in 2002 with Jason Farese and Austin Poole, traveled from his practice in Ocean Springs to help keep the practice going.
“I really felt like God spoke to me when I heard it happened. I knew, in that minute,” Timmons said. He received the call while driving back from Orlando. Timmons had attended the same conference from which the three couples were returning when their plane crashed. “The second thought that was in my head was do it for the kids. I knew this was their retirement. The value of the practice would slip away quickly if people didn't step in.”
The Fareses had one of the most technologically advanced practices in Mississippi. Attending the seminar in Florida was a testament to their commitment to staying on the cutting edge of dentistry.
However, Timmons said the group skipped one day of classes to take in the sights at Universal Studios. “I didn't want to skip class,” he said. “I am kind of glad now that they did, not knowing it was going to be one of their last few days.”
Timmons said that he talked to Jason on the day before the crash. “Farese just came and sat down beside me before this class started,” Timmons said. “He talked to me for just a little bit, which was kind of unusual, I thought. He's always busy, somewhere to go and something to do.
“I was focused on the class and my notes, and he just wanted to small talk. Now I really regret not putting my paper down and totally giving him 100 percent of my attention. I didn't realize that was going to be the last time I ever talked to him.”
John Green, a family friend of all three couples who lives in Oxford, described Jason as the little brother he'd never had. “I've known Jason since the time he was born. His older brother and I were best friends,” he said. “Jason was a consummate perfectionist in everything he did - academically, professionally and even spiritually. You could say that about all of them. They donated a lot of their time and did a lot of pro bono work for people who couldn't afford it.”
Green said that Lea was great with the children who came into the clinic. “She was kind of Jason's alter ego, if you will,” he said. “She was a great mom and a great mentor to a lot of children. She was always at Jason's side and always at the children's side.”
“They were not just good dentists - and they were very good dentists - but they were good people,” Hodge said. “They were people whom you'd want your families to be around. They are going to be missed by many, many, many people.”
The Fareses leave behind three children: Luke, Alexa and Layla.
Dr. Austin and Angie Poole
Austin and Angie Poole met later in life. Austin worked his way through college on his way to a degree from Delta State University. Angie was an Ole Miss alumna. Theirs was a second marriage for both, and together they parented five children: Katie, Walker, Kingsley, Wesley and Jack. As a family, they enjoyed spending time outdoors.
“They spent a ton of time outdoors with all their children,” Green said. “They were outdoors all the time.”
Austin is remembered by his Delta roots by many. Dr. Neva Penton Eklund wrote in the Mississippi Dental Association publication MDA Insider about Austin wearing his hunting boots to class “because he had either just come from hunting that morning or was headed that way as soon as he could after the afternoon lab class.”
Former chair of periodontics and preventive services at the School of Dentistry, Dr. Frank Serio remembers the stories Austin told him of time spent in the woods, hunting and fishing.
“I loved talking to Austin because he was just a country boy, no question about it,” Serio said. “He would rather spend time out in the woods chasing hogs or hunting deer than just about anything else in his life. He was also a really good fisherman. He taught me a few things about fishing. I really enjoyed his company.”
Angie and Austin spent their days together. As the office manager, she ran his practice in Clarksdale. Together they would drive an hour each way from Oxford to Clarksdale to provide care to patients in the underserved, rural area. Duncan said that often patients were treated regardless of their ability to pay.
“Angie was just kindhearted,” Green said. “She was very confident and constantly involved in all of their children's lives. She was a great mom, very welcoming. Her house was open to everyone. They'd take in total strangers. Austin and Angie were just great to everyone they knew. They never met strangers.”
Timmons said that Austin was one of the nicest people he had ever known. “Austin Poole would, literally - if it was during finals, if there was a war going on, if the building was on fire - he would stop and help somebody,” he said. “He would sacrifice his time.”
Timmons summed up the way many friends and colleagues are feeling with this:
“It's really sad and tragic. It is a tremendous loss to the dental community,” he said. “Jason was way ahead of his time in dentistry with technology. That was a great loss. Michael Perry did so much for the community, as you know, and so did all of them, really. They were just an inspiration to live our lives that way.”
Dr. Michael and Kim Perry
Michael Perry and Kim Westerfield grew up together in Brandon. They started dating when he was in the ninth grade and she was in the eighth. They both attended the University of Mississippi after high school. She received a degree in nursing, and after receiving a math degree in Oxford, he went on to attend the School of Dentistry in Jackson. Michael completed post doctorate training in periodontics at Baylor College of Dentistry while Kim earned a master's degree from Texas Woman's University and post master's degree as a family nurse practitioner from Mississippi University for Women.
The high school sweethearts married in 1997. They settled in Oxford, Michael to establish a periodontal practice and Kim as a nurse practitioner at the University of Mississippi Health Center.
Green said that Kim was a committed wife, mother and health care provider. “She spent her entire adult life taking care of others,” he said. “That's common with all of them. They were all just very giving people.”
Michael's brother, Robert Perry, said that his brother was very passionate about his work, his patients and his staff. More than one person described him as driven. He grew five practices in north Mississippi and the Memphis area, and his staff followed him to each location to provide care.
“People say that he ran 90 miles an hour everywhere he went. He wanted to cover as much of an area as possible and see as many patients as possible,” Robert said.
He also went the extra mile to show how much he cared for his patients. “I've received a lot of letters - the whole family has - about how Michael would call his patients after he had seen them that day,” Robert said. It was the first time most patients had ever received a telephone call from a doctor or a dentist checking on them, and it meant a lot. “He really did care.”
He showed his caring in other ways as well. Inspired by Serio, the former faculty member, Perry traveled with him to the Dominican Republic to provide care to the less fortunate. Perry took his oldest children with him to nurture in them an appreciation for helping others.
Robert said that his brother's legacy will be the 73-acre Oxford-Lafayette Sports Plex he built with his own money. “Michael always knew how important sports were growing up and how there were role models in coaches and good support in youth sports,” Robert said.
“They were very motivated for the youth in this town,” Green said. “They took care of people who couldn't financially take care of themselves.”
Serio said that Michael was not just tireless for himself but for everyone around him. “He and Kim really did so much for the Oxford community. Any way that Michael touched people was just tremendous, and of course Kim was right by his side the whole time,” Serio said.
The Perrys leave behind three children: Sarah McConnell, John West and Anna Reed.
Our Oxford Family
Green has formed a memorial fund to help the children of all three families.
“Our Oxford Family was set up to take care of the short and long-term needs which should arise for the children who were left when their parents passed away,” he said. “Short and long-term needs include education or basic needs going forward.”
Those who wish to contribute may visit the Our Oxford Family website.