Somewhere between the folksy practicality of Ben Franklin and the larger-than-life personality of Frank Sinatra is Dr. Lawrence Harte. He comes across like a modern day Mark Twain, dishing out folksy bits of wisdom to patients, students and colleagues alike.
“Being spoon-fed at an early age does not sharpen ones teeth.”
“If we spend too much time retracing our old steps, we’ll never have time for new steps.”
“You can’t move the mountain, but you can climb it.”
Yet focus too deeply on the folksy nature, on the Brooklyn twang or on the self-deprecating nature, you’ll overlook the considerable intellect that allows him to shift seamlessly between discussions of Plato versus Aristotle (he considers himself more the latter) the philosophical differences that are shaping (and misshaping) the American health marketplaces or the three books he has authored.
Born in Brooklyn, Lawrence Harte grew up an urban latchkey kid in the 1930’s and 40’s. Coming off the Great Depression in a working-class neighborhood, he and his friends were always looking for “opportunities”. This included dabbling in a little wink-and-nod grifting with activities like the magic cup game. He explains, “let them win the first game…maybe for a nickel. Let them win the second game…which was for a dime. And then when they’d go for a buck, you let them lose. And they’d lose because we knew how to work the game!”
Even at an early age, Dr. Harte’s interest trended towards the well rounded, as he had an interest in physics and philosophy, two disciplines typically associated with the extreme ends of the left-brain, right-brain spectrum. While both subjects would inform his life in any number of ways, he ultimately chose to walk away from both, as the endgame for each seemed to be teaching, a profession that had a reputation for being much more emotionally satisfying than it was financially rewarding.
After graduation from Brooklyn Technical high school, Lawrence Harte decided to enroll in college at Columbia University. When he found himself seated in front of the admissions board they said, “We’ve had some very fine applicants today. What can you say about yourself?”
Thinking on the spot, he decided to step back and swing for the fences.
“Sir, if Columbia would have me, I’d love to become a modern day Ben Franklin.”
And with that, he was off to the races. He spoke passionately about the accomplishments of Franklin, going from his inventions to writings to his intellectual pursuits such as the Junto Club, whose sole purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy.
“And believe it or not, they accepted me!”
He went from Columbia straight into dental school at the University of Pennsylvania. His next stop was in the Air Force where he developed a love for international travel. After leaving the Air Force, he applied to orthodontic school. One of his applications went to the Eastman Center at the University of Rochester, who showed a somewhat surprising enthusiasm for his application.
Dr. Harte was met by the Director of the Center, who chauffeured him to their application meeting. He found this somewhat unusual for an undergraduate applying for a graduate position. Then things took to a turn for the surreal.
“We were walking across campus discussing my application. As we were making our way into the basement of the building…which didn’t smell so good, he started talking about monkeys. I eventually noticed that there were cages full of monkeys all around the place.”
That’s when it struck him what had happened.
On his application, Dr. Harte had offhandedly mentioned some basic artwork that he’d done on/with monkeys during dental school. It just so happened that the Eastman Center did a lot of research on monkeys. In their zeal to find someone who could help with the research on primates, the research department had inadvertently given Dr. Harte considerably more credit for working with primates than he actually had. “I’d never seen an actual monkey before except in the zoo!”
Still, fate works in mysterious ways and this could be the break this kid from Brooklyn was looking for. So he played it kind of cool and graciously accepted their offer – both of the education and of performing the primate research.
He got his orthodontic degree and put the monkeys and their cages behind him. With a renewed sense of drive, he again swung for the fences and opened his own practice in Livingston, NJ. In what was an auspicious beginning, he made just $75 in his first three months. Eventually however, the practice began to gain traction in the community. So much so that he was able to open a second practice in Sparta, New Jersey a few years later.
But orthodontics is just part of the Dr. Lawrence Harte story.
Between then and now, he’s found the time to become a father to three (including his oldest Doug who practices with him at Harte Orthodontics), a grandfather, an author, cartoonist, sculptor, teacher, glass blower, congressional consultant, sailor, magician, poet, traveler, entertainer and, well, the list could go on for as long as you care to engage him in conversation.
His most famous side-project is probably his book Brooklyn-ese Proverbs and Cartoons which he both wrote and helped illustrate. There are thousands of copies in circulation and it has even inspired a line of mugs and tee-shirts. But it’s the title of grandfather that inspired what might be his magnum opus: Journey with Grandchildren – A Life Story. The 500 page work is written for every grandparent,parent, and grandchild. Part autobiography and part essay, it’s not just about what he’s done and what’s happened to him…but what it all means.
Today he still practices three days a week, and he’s still philosophical about orthodontics and life. Dr. Harte acknowledges that price has become a prime driver when people think about orthodontic treatment. “People are shopping price more than value.” He’s also resolute in his desire to give back to the community that’s given him so much. He and his son also sponsor a number of sports teams in the community and he’s taken the time to speak to over 25,000 students on the importance of dental health, straightening teeth and self-esteem.
Whether he’s known as the local kid who made it big following his dreams wherever they lead, the romantic who dotes on the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson, the poet/philosopher who knows his neighbors by name and isn’t shy about sharing a comment or a compliment. Whatever happens next for Dr. Harte, he’s sure to embrace it and make it a part of the story.
For more information on Dr. Lawrence’s book visit,www.brooklyneseproverbsandcartoons.com
This article first published in 2014 OrthoWorld.