Kenneth Torbert’s humanitarian life

Tyler Clarke
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A humanitarian to his core, globetrotting dentist Kenneth Torbert took pride in the fact that he never felt cornered in an office job.


Torbert died at his Prince Albert home on Saturday at the age of 79 after a battle with cancer.

“He said a master’s (degree) in public health is the only degree you can get where you make less money after the degree than you did before, because public health -- you make much less money than a dentist in an office,” his wife Anita said on Tuesday.

“It was for the good of the person -- it wasn’t for how nice I set up my office and how attractive I make everything so I can charge more -- No, that was never his goal.”

In August, Torbert told the Daily Herald that he remained committed to seeing the National School of Dental Therapy re-open for the good of people living in northern Saskatchewan.

The school closed in 2011 after the federal government cut its funding and a subsequent funding search fell flat.

Torbert moved to Prince Albert in 1989 to take an instructor job at the school, which prepared students to serve as dental therapists in northern communities.

With most dentists unwilling to travel up north, “these people make a big, big difference,” Torbert said in August, adding that dental therapists do a better job than dentists when it comes to most minor dental work.

“I wish of some way to break that (issue) loose so people would start talking about it again. It was such a good program.”

The son of a United Methodist minister, Torbert’s early years were spent in the United States.

It was during this time that Wesley United Church minister Tony Thompson believes Torbert was shaped into the humanitarian who Prince Albert residents got to know over the past 25 years.

“I think Ken just grew up with that kind of atmosphere -- that being concerned about the welfare of people in the world is important,” Thompson said.

Although Tobert told the Daily Herald in August that the military “irked” him on various levels, circumstances led him to join the United States military in 1954.

“My grades in college were so poor the first year,” he explained. “I literally went to my draft board -- they were still drafting people … (and) they said ‘sure,’ and they sent me out the next batch.”

He landed in Korea exactly one year from the day that the Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed, so he is considered a veteran of the Korean War, receiving three medals -- United Nations Services, National Defense and Korean Service.

“If I’d landed the next day, I wouldn’t have a thing,” he said with a chuckle.

The following decade saw Torbert devote himself to various humanitarian efforts, including his participation in March on Washington and the second of three Selma to Montgomery marches -- some of the United States’ most significant moments in civil rights history.

Click HERE for an more in-depth article about Torbert's participation in the civil rights movement. 

“Nobody’s had as much fun in demonstrating as I have,” Torbert said. “Frankly, it was more adventure than anything else -- plus I believed (in) them.”

One of Torbert’s three daughters, Beth -- best known as rock musician Bif Naked -- cited her father’s stance on activism as a point of pride this week.

“My father stood behind nonviolent protest and civil disobedience and encouraged this in others,” she wrote in email correspondence with the Daily Herald, noting that she remembers her father telling her about how watching Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I have a Dream” speech showed him “how powerful love was.”

“My dad led a life of service and volunteerism was in the forefront,” Beth wrote. “As a result, I am a chip off the old block and try very hard to be a real advocate for others and to volunteer my time.”

Click HERE to read Beth's Facebook post about her father's influence. 

Torbert spent five years in India with his first wife, who now goes by Jeanette Gibson. The couple had three girls, of whom two (including Beth) were adopted.

It’s hard to think of Wesley without him, and I think it’ll be many times where we’ll say, ‘What would Ken have said here?’ And then we’ll laugh because he would have said something funny. Tony Thompson

Dental and humanitarian work filled out the decades that followed, which saw Torbert’s family leave India as a result of political strife between that country and the United States.

After stints in various places around the world and the breakup of his first marriage, Torbert took a job at the National School of Dental Therapy in 1989.

One of his students was Anita’s daughter-in-law, whose 1991 wedding served as a meeting place for herself and Torbert. The two married in 1994.

During his 25 years in Prince Albert, Torbert left a mark on the city.

He was a valuable founding member of Habitat for Humanity Prince Albert, fellow founder Frank Moore said, concluding, “I think it was in his nature.”

“Ken took a real keen interest in the families,” Habitat for Humanity Prince Albert president Morris Sawchuk said. “I know at one of the builds, one of the families was involved in the same church that Ken and his wife went to, and he kind of mentored the family.

“He was a genuine person. Ken was just a great guy -- very committed to the Habitat cause, (and he) liked the program. Ken, even though he was retired, still maintained a full-time job to look after the demands that we had of him.”

An avid member of the Wesley United Church family, Thompson said that Torbert and Anita were central in the church’s successful effort to bring two refugee families to the city.

“We’ve certainly enjoyed the refugees, and (Torbert) really worked very hard with them,” Anita said. “You’ve really got to have a head on you to jump through all the hoops the government requires.”

Although he retired in 2000, Torbert found the importance in helping northern communities with their dental care needs, and made various trips up north to help out where he could.

“I’m still playing the game,” he said in August. “I just do this fun stuff …  I just hike in for about two days and I’ll examine all the kindergartners and the First, Second and Third Graders, because I want them to get off to a good start … We just enjoy each others’ company.”

In addition to his mark on Prince Albert, Torbert and Anita extended their reach overseas as United Church of Canada overseas personnel, serving in Nepal and Ludhiana, a city of 1.6 million people in the northern Punjab state of India.

During Sunday’s service, Thompson devoted some time to telling the Wesley United Church congregation a little bit about Torbert.

“It’s hard to think of Wesley without him, and I think it’ll be many times where we’ll say, ‘What would Ken have said here?’ And then we’ll laugh because he would have said something funny.

“He was able to talk people into looking at the world around them while still being humorous about it … He addressed everything seriously, but he didn’t take everything seriously.”

During Sunday’s service, Thompson said that he relayed his favourite Torbert quote.

“When somebody in the congregation a couple of years ago objected to the fact that he was always raising mission issues on Sunday morning, he said to her, ‘If the church is not about mission then it might as well be a country club.’ And I think that’s a marvelous quote.”

By coincidence, the congregation sang “We are Marching in the Love of God” on Sunday -- the same song they sang in August when Torbert shared details of his March on Washington experience with them.

In August, Torbert said that he spent his early years afraid that he was going to end up “working in some corner” as a dentist concerned about the bottom line, when Medicare should cover dental care costs.

“That fortunately doesn’t bother me anymore because I never did work in private practice.”

A celebration of his life will be held at Wesley United Church some time in early March.

Organizations: Daily Herald, Wesley United Church, United Nations Services Habitat for Humanity Prince Albert United Church of Canada

Geographic location: Prince Albert, United States, Northern Saskatchewan India Washington Korea Nepal Ludhiana Northern Punjab

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  • Eric Parsons
    February 15, 2014 - 16:51