In 1967, John Ilko was a new dentist about to work on a career-shaping procedure, he said.
He had just been accepted into a rotating dental internship program with the Army in San Antonio.
A soldier who had been fighting in Vietnam had been shot by a .50-caliber machine gun and shipped to San Antonio for reconstructive surgery on his lower jaw.
Ilko, along with two other dentists who were training to be oral surgeons, successfully replaced the man’s jaw with one of his smaller rib bones and installed teeth into the new jawbone.
Although unique, the procedure represented the philosophy to which Ilko would dedicate the rest of his career —helping people.
“Just getting them out of pain and creating some beautiful smiles along the way,” the 68-year-old Craig resident said.
On Monday, however, Ilko’s more than 40-year career as a dentist came to an end when he sold his practice, Bears Ears Dental Group, to Lee Atkin, of Klamath Falls, Ore. Ilko will remain in the office in some capacity for a few months to help Atkin transition into his new role, he said.
“At the end of the day, my back is telling me it’s time to quit,” he said. “And I want to see if I can find some new adventure.”
Ilko was born in Philadelphia and completed his dental school pre-requisites at Villanova University. He was later accepted into the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Dental Medicine, from where he graduated in 1966.
After his work in San Antonio, he moved to a small town in West Germany to practice dentistry for three years at an Army base.
He moved to Craig in 1970 and started his dental practice, which went by just his name at the time.
“We were looking for a home and wanted to be in a place where we felt we were needed,” he said of moving to Craig.
At the time, Ilko said Craig had one dentist.
After visiting the city, meeting a few residents and driving to a nearby hill to look out at the “vastness,” Ilko decided he wanted to call the area home.
“Remember, I’m from Philadelphia,” he said. “So, when I looked at that open space, that was it.
“I said to Sally (his wife), ‘I don’t think we need to go any further.’”
Soon after, Ilko started a practice originally located in the Craig Medical Clinic.
Since opening, Ilko’s practice has grown to serve more than 1,800 active patients, he said.
In 1992, Ilko moved his practice to its current building on West Victory Way. In 2005, he renamed the practice Bears Ears Dental Group.
As patients sat in his dental chair, mouth open and under a bright light, Ilko contends he was building relationships with area residents.
Ilko would sometimes see up to 30 patients per day, he said, and would help with a variety of dental procedures in the office, from hygiene checks to examinations and treatments.
Ilko said he would perform various procedures ranging from fillings to oral surgery.
During his career, Ilko said he has seen the profession change greatly.
“It’s been a changing profession from doing what you would call ‘wet-fingered dentistry’ and evolving into gloves and masks and eye protection,” he said. “That wasn’t part of the profession when I started.”
Ilko said he will “sorely miss” his patients.
“When I was sending out my letter to make them aware (of my retirement), I actually teared up,” he said. “It was an emotional thing to do.”
Since announcing that he will leave the practice, Ilko said he has received an “outpouring” of community support.
“It really warms the cockles of your heart to see that you are valued and appreciated that much,” he said.
But, walking away from his practice is a little bit easier knowing its future is in good hands.
“I certainly feel comfortable having Lee take over for the direction of the practice, because he is a high-quality dentist,” Ilko said. “He will continue on in the pursuit that we want to provide a superior dental service to the community.