Ricks lauded for service, passion for community health
Published on Monday, March 28, 2022
By: Ruth Cummins, firstname.lastname@example.org
When elementary-schoolers in the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians had their teeth cleaned and fluoridated in early 2020, Dr. Tim Ricks was on the team of dentists who volunteered to travel to Neshoba County to give hands-on care.
They took time off from their day jobs to take part in Give Kids a Smile, a highlight of Dental Mission Week sponsored each spring by the School of Dentistry on the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus.
Ricks, a 1995 SOD graduate, might have traveled the farthest to lend his hands and heart that day as an example of servant leadership. He is the nation’s top oral health official, the chief dental officer in the U.S. Public Health Service. Ricks also has the dual role of deputy director of the Indian Health Service (IHS) Division of Oral Health.
“I enjoyed working with the Choctaw dental staff in going out to different Choctaw communities in Bogue Chitto, Conehatta and Red Water to screen children and apply fluoride varnish,” said Ricks, who holds the rank of Rear Admiral.
Such work is one of Ricks’ passions. His path to public health began after three years in private practice in Mississippi after dental school graduation.
“I felt a calling to do more on a bigger level, to try to make a change to a community rather than just the individuals that showed up in my dental office,” Ricks said. “I remembered the Indian Health Service coming to my school, and luckily I saved the brochure.”
Ricks began a long career with the IHS in a small dental clinic with one dental assistant and two dental chairs, calling the transition from private practice to a public health setting “a real eye opener.”
With the IHS since 1999, Ricks has overseen clinics spanning across Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and along the East Coast. But he makes his way back on occasion to the roots of his career, taking part in Give Kids A Smile and speaking in January 2019 to SOD students about careers in public service.
“John F. Kennedy said: ‘One person can make a difference, and everyone should try,’” said Dr. Sreenivas Koka, dean of the School of Dentistry. “Dr. Ricks epitomizes how one person can impact hundreds of thousands of lives, families, communities and society, not only through his own direct actions, but also by developing and leading mission-driven high-performing teams so everyone can try.”
A graduate of Delta State University, Ricks was the “Statesman” mascot several times at football and basketball games. He grew up in Crystal Springs. “My wife Julie and I were junior high sweethearts and have been happily married for 30 years,” Ricks said.
“Julie made me do it!” Ricks says of becoming a dentist. “Actually, I was pre-med, but I decided to take a gap year after undergraduate studies to figure out what to do with my life.”
Ricks was activated for Desert Storm and sent for Army Officer Basic Training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, before entering the SOD. “I remembered spending countless hours in the pre-clinical laboratory, and remember one specific time when news reporters showed up to cover a story about the school possibly shutting down,” Ricks said.
“I also remember how we as students really leaned on each other. Some were good clinically, some were good academically, but we all worked as a pretty close-knit family most of the time.”
Former SOD faculty member Dr. Steve Pollock worked with Ricks as a contractor with the Indian Health Service. “I’m not surprised at where he is today,” said Pollock, an Arnold, California resident who retired in 2014 as associate professor of periodontics. “He was an unusually good dental student.
“He did one thing that no other dental student had done. He took it upon himself to write a flow sheet of periodiagnosis and phase one treatment. He gave it to me, and that wasn’t an assignment. He did it on his own.”
Ricks earned his master of public health from the University of Nevada-Reno. He completed a dental public health residency with the Indian Health Service and became a board-certified Diplomate of the American Board of Dental Public Health. Ricks also is a Fellow of the International College of Dentists and the American College of Dentists.
After serving in Nevada, his career took him to Tennessee in 2006, when he was selected Area Dental Officer and director of the IHS Office of Public Health of the Nashville Area. In that role, he oversaw medical, pharmacy, behavioral health and dental programs in 27 facilities across the northeastern and southeastern United States.
From there, he became Area Dental Officer for the Albuquerque Area IHS, becoming the first Area Dental Officer to oversee two IHS Areas at the same time, including 23 dental facilities in Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. He became deputy director of the IHS Division of Oral Health in 2016.
The American Dental Association in 2021 honored Ricks with its Distinguished Service Award, making him the first USPHS chief dental officer and the first IHS dentist to receive the honor.
“Over the last two decades, Dr. Ricks has been instrumental to the advancement of oral health in our nation,” an ADA news release said. “And at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, his leadership was vital in supporting dentists and patients when uncertainty abounded.”
Ricks and his wife live in Nashville and have two children. Daughter Kristen is a dentist, and son Tyler is a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music.
“There can be no finer exemplar of serving humanity with compassion and commitment, and I am truly grateful for all the ways Dr. Ricks has served and continues to serve,” Koka said. “He has set a high bar for all of us to reach, and I thank him for setting it so high, as we all are better for trying to reach it.”