Durango Honors Dentist Slain In Afghan Aid Attack

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Dentist Tom Grams of Durgango, Colo., was among the group of 10 aid workers slain in Afghanistan earlier this month. Four years ago, Grams gave up a successful private dental practice to work in the third world.


Hundreds of residents of the small Colorado city of Durango turned out yesterday to remember a local dentist. Tom Grams was among the 10 medical volunteers killed in Afghanistan earlier this month. In his adopted hometown, friends remembered Grams as a remarkable neighbor with an adventurous spirit. Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports.

MEGAN VERLEE: The Aminas River flows through Durango like a second Main Street - a watery byway where residents go to float, paddle and play.�Fifteen years ago, it was also where Tom Grams took a prospective dental partner for a little kayaking.

Mr. COURTNEY HEINICKE (Dentist): We must have hit the river three or four times that weekend, and a lot of it - you can see the Animas now. It's pretty quiet. So we were able to sit and talk on the river, and that's actually where we did most of the interviewing.

VERLEE: Courtney Heinicke got the job and ended up working with Grams for the next 11 years.�He says that interview experience was an example of Grams' personality - a knack he had for putting people at ease, whether it was talking dentistry from a kayak, or learning Nepalese chants to amuse kids at the clinics where he volunteered.� Grams made his first volunteer trip overseas in 2001, and Heinicke says it changed him.

Mr. HEINICKE: Tom felt dentistry in the United States was hollow, after working abroad.�The people there were lined up to see him. They really appreciated what he did.�If things didn't go perfectly, they didn't hold him at fault. They knew he was trying to help them out.�That's what we're doing here in the States, but people don't look at it that way.

VERLEE: Volunteering slowly consumed more and more of Grams' life, until three years ago, as he was approaching 50, he finally quit the practice to focus on his travels.� Durango is an outdoor mecca, and like a lot of the people who live here, Grams had a passion for wild places. He was a backpacker, canyon trekker, river rafter.�The skills came in handy when he was hauling dental equipment into some of the remotest places on earth.��

Mr. HEINICKE: If there were too many dentists where he was volunteering, he didn't see the need as that great there. He kept looking for the more remote areas.

(Soundbite of chiming)

VERLEE: The chime of a Tibetan prayer bowl welcomed mourners to Grams' memorial service yesterday. A slide show alternated between pictures of Grams in the wilds of Colorado and the wilds of Afghanistan. They showed a sandy-haired man, often in Afghan outfits, surrounded by kids brandishing toothbrushes.�Grams' identical twin brother, Tim, told the audience about an interview he did with a South Dakota TV station after his brother's death.

Mr. TIM GRAMS: And a camera man kind of summed up Tom at the end there, when he said, you know, I never thought of dentist as Indiana Jones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

VERLEE: Durango is an Indiana Jones kind of town. But some of Grams' friends say he was actually a bit frustrated with all the people there who spend their lives having adventures just for themselves without finding a larger purpose.�

Sitting next to the Animas River, Courtney Heinicke says the city's changed since Grams' offered him that job 15 years ago. There are more tourists now, more second homes.

Mr. HEINICKE: To me, Tom kind of defined Durango. And that's one of the reasons it's so hard to say goodbye. This place, it's grown. It's not going to be the same without him.�It'll still be great, but it's not the same.

VERLEE: Grams' family and friends say they hope stories of his life will inspire others. And apparently, they already have. One group he worked with says more than 50 people have called in the last week interested in picking up Grams' work overseas.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Durango, Colorado.

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