Dr. George Karnes
In 1995, Dr. George Karnes sold his home, his farm and a large dental practice in Carbondale, Ill., and moved to Tennessee on a hunch and prayer that there was something God wanted him to do in Johnson City.
Eighteen years and several million dollars in free dental work later, Karnes is quite certain the nonprofit Keystone Dental Care clinic was at the root of his calling.
It was more than five years before the idea of opening a nonprofit dental clinic for medically indigent patients in Johnson City was conceived that Karnes told his wife he felt there was more than his desire to spend more time with their daughter and two young granddaughters in Johnson City that made him yearn to leave Illinois for the hills of Northeast Tennessee. He asked her to think about it. He told her he was praying about it. And a few weeks later when she told him she thought he was right, their course was set.
Reflecting on all that’s been accomplished since then, he said simply, “God is good. Prayer works.” And in his case, it worked to the benefit of hundreds of people in the Johnson City area who suffered with recurring infections in abscessed teeth they had no means to have pulled.
A man of strong faith with a long record of service to others, Karnes was invited to give the keynote address at this year’s Milligan College Christian Leadership Awards banquet. Now 76 years old and only recently retired, he told the group the story of the unlikely beginning of his religious commitment.
As a child, he said, neither of his parents attended church and instead spent their Saturday nights drinking and dancing and their Sundays playing cards. His saving grace came at age 17 when three different girls invited him to church on the same Easter Sunday.
“I wanted to impress them so I accepted. I went with one girl to the sunrise service, another to Sunday school and morning service and the third to the evening service. By that time I was so deeply under conviction that I could hardly wait for the invitation to accept Jesus as my Savior.”
In those days, Karnes’ future wife, Mary Alice, who lived across the street from his childhood home, refused to go out with him at all.
“We were friends and she said I was too much like her brother,” he said.
But the two were destined to meet again. And several years later while he was home from dental school on a visit, Mary Alice had a change of heart. Ten months later, they were married and last year they marked their 55th wedding anniversary.
After a five-year stint as an Air Force dentist, including service at a military hospital in the Philippines where he treated U.S. soldiers with dental trauma suffered in the fighting in Vietnam, the Karneses settled and raised three children in Carbondale.
When they decided to move to Tennessee in 1993, their house and farm sold quickly but his dental practice, which by that time had grown quite large, was a slow mover. The practice had been on the market for nearly two years when Karnes began to doubt his calling. Too young to retire, he prayed again, this time telling God if the practice sold before its fourth listing expired on June 30, 1995, he’d take it as a sign Johnson City was indeed the right move.
When the practice sold and the bank scheduled the sale’s closing date for none other than June 30, 1995, he was certain his dispatch was divine. It was a couple of years after he got here that he began to wonder and even fear what his purpose would be.
Still certain God brought him to Johnson City for a reason, he began to worry there could be some family tragedy in store that would require his assistance here. But when he read an article in the Johnson City Press in October 1996 about the city’s nonprofit Downtown Clinic being in need of dental care for patients who came to the clinic for antibiotics for abscessed teeth only to return a few months later with the same recurring infection, he finally began to see. And he began to pray again.
Two months later, Dr. Rebecca Nunley, director of the dental hygiene clinic at East Tennessee State University, approached Karnes at a Dental Society Christmas party with news that a local group was working to start a dental clinic for the needy. When Nunley asked for his help, his response was, “Thank you, Lord.”
Keystone Dental Care was incorporated one year later as a not-for-profit dental clinic operated by volunteer dentists and assistants to provide free dental treatment to the homeless, the poor and the medically indigent. “I was president of the board of directors for the first six years and served on (the board and as a volunteer) for seven more years.
“In those years we have done several million dollars worth of dental care for those who can’t afford to pay for it,” he said. “Isn’t it amazing what prayer can accomplish?”
Since the economic downturn of 2008, reductions in government grants and even private support for nonprofit services have brought changes to Keystone Dental Care. Emergency treatment that for many years was provided at no cost is now made available on an income-based payment scale. New patient referrals are limited primarily to those who come to the clinic from the Regional Cancer Treatment Center with infections in their teeth that prevent them from starting radiation treatment for cancer.
The clinic’s paid staff of one full-time and two part-time dentists, who along with a team of more than a dozen volunteer dentists and assistants provided more than $1 million of treatment in a single year, has been let go.
Keystone Dental Care is once again operating solely on the time given by volunteer dentists. And in February, Karnes, who with his wife and daughter Kathy was among its faithful helpers, developed arthritis in his hands and retired his license.
In recruiting other dentists to help at the clinic, Karnes said he focuses primarily on need.
“I tell them about emergency patients who are in pain who can’t afford to pay and how we can see them (at Keystone) so they won’t have to deal with them in their own offices.”
The clinic’s volunteer numbers are steadily rising. With new volunteers on board, the loss of two major grants in 2012 is becoming more manageable. His daughter has stepped up to take his place on its board of directors. And Karnes is free to enjoy his retirement.
An avid hunter, he recently returned from Africa, where he bagged seven big plains game animals and killed one spitting cobra in self-defense. It was his fourth African safari, including three hunts and one photo safari. And considering the cobra, it was one of the more exciting trips.
Following up on a 20-year series of mission trips to Mexico, Karnes made his last dental mission trip last year to Guatemala, where he was assisted by his 15-year-old granddaughter.
There is a new cafeteria at a children’s home in Morlos Coachuila, Mexico, dedicated to Karnes and his wife’s work in the village. And in 2004, Milligan College presented him with a Leadership in Christian Service Award of his own in recognition of mission work, his assistance to Keystone Dental Care and his active membership at Central Baptist Church.
All in all, he said, “I feel like I’m probably the most blessed man in the world. I have three children who are all strong Christians, 11 grandchildren, all Christians, and this wife I’ve had 55 years who still likes me.
“I was able to serve in my profession for 55 1/2 years before I had to retire. And I live in the United States of America, which so many people don’t realize what a blessing that is.
“I have been able to serve hundreds of those who were less fortunate than myself. And I don’t think God is through with me.
“I’m still active, still able. I don’t know what the Lord has in mind. But I’m sure he has something else for me to do.
“In the meantime, I’m going to keep praying ...”