Scholarship honors children, helps nontraditional dental students

June 12, 2019
Gale Clarida and her children
Dr. Gale Cobb Clarida with her children, Heather and Nathan.

When Gale Cobb Clarida pulled away from her mother’s farm house in Chester on Sunday evenings, her son would run up to the top of the hill and yell to her: “Please tell the president of that college that you have a little boy who loves you.”

Clarida steered her car with hot tears running down her cheeks, reminding herself that each three-hour trip back to Charleston took her a little closer to a better life for her family.

Clarida studied dental hygiene and then earned a Master of Health Administration before deciding to follow a childhood dream that seemed out of reach for a single mother in the early 1980s. When she started dental school at the MUSC James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine, she committed to providing her elementary school-aged daughter and toddler son with the upbringing she wanted for them, even if it meant that she spent weekdays living in an apartment on the rough side of town in another city.

Her kids, Heather and Nathan, passed their days on the farm where Clarida grew up, tending to livestock and living across the street from her brother’s family. When Clarida couldn’t make it home to them, her mother brought the children to her.

“I wish I could’ve gotten a diploma for my mother,” she said. Her family joined Clarida on dinner cruises around Charleston Harbor with her classmates. Her children came to idolize the other students — even if her classmates did sometimes tip her son to pump the beer keg.

“In dental school I was in my element,” Clarida remembered. “It wasn’t easy, but we all helped each other. Our class was so close that I always feel like they’re part of me.”

They walked her home after late nights studying. They celebrated her wedding the day after graduation in 1986, when she married a fellow dentist from Georgia whom she had met on a blind date. And they comforted her during the agonizing despair of losing a child — twice. 

Clarida retired two years ago from the practice she shared with her husband, Bill. She recently made a planned gift from her estate to provide a scholarship for future nontraditional students at the College of Dental Medicine. The Dr. Gale Evans Cobb Clarida Memorial Scholarship honors Heather and Nathan, who both died of leukemia as adults.

Heather, her quiet and studious child, first became sick as a teenager. Heather completed chemotherapy and went on to college to pursue a teaching career, but the disease returned after her freshman year.

“She came home, and my mother had just died,” Clarida remembered. “I thought, my rock is gone. I have to do it by myself.”

Heather underwent four bone marrow transplants over the next several years before treatments stopped working. She died in 1999 at age 26.

Nathan, Clarida’s vivacious jokester, called from Texas one Friday with good news: He had been promoted in his medical sales profession, and he, his wife and their baby boy were moving home to Georgia.

Four days later he went to see a doctor for a persistent fever. When antibiotics didn’t help, Nathan wound up in the hospital.

“They did a blood test, and when he told me what his counts were, I knew what was wrong,” Clarida said.

Like his big sister, Nathan had leukemia. He died in 2014 at age 37.

“After Heather died, I left everything to him,” Clarida said. “Now I plan to leave some money to the University in honor of Heather and Nathan. I want it to go to someone who needs help.”

Clarida has served as her class representative since graduation, keeping everyone in touch over the years and throughout life’s triumphs and challenges. Stephanie Oberempt, director of development at the College, said classmates relate to each other almost as family.

“Our alumni forge such close relationships with one another and with the College,” Oberempt said. “They also bring individual backgrounds and perspectives to their time here. We’re honored that Dr. Clarida has offered a helping hand to future students facing obstacles similar to her own, so that they too can become leaders in this profession.”

Clarida’s scholarship will give preference to single parents and other students with personal challenges.

“I love education, and I love learning, so I thought it would be good to give money back to the place where I got my education,” Clarida said. “I just felt like I belonged at the Medical University, and because my children were part of the experience with me, I thought this would be a good way to honor them.”