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Dr. Ken Palm Brings Humor, Personal Connection To Decades-Long Dental Career

A man sits in a chair in an dental examination room.
Elodie Reed
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VPR
Dr. Ken Palm at his office in Colchester. Palm has been a dentist for 38 years and working in Vermont since 1995.

In the stairwell leading down to Colchester Dental Group and Aesthetic Center, there's a big sign that says "Smile." It’s the kind of sign you’d expect to see at a dentist's office, but it’s not just there for show: Dr. Ken Palm smiles — a lot.

“Liam, I'm sorry I'm talking so much man, you know, I'm probably the easiest interview you'll ever have,” Palm said to me. “All you have to do is say, 'Hello,' and I start talking.”

Palm likes to sprinkle your name into the conversation, and he ends his sentences with an infectious laugh.

A sign on the wall that says 'Smile.'
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
A sign on the way Dr. Palm's office in Colchester.

Palm has been a dentist for 38 years, working in Washington D.C., Maryland and New York state. He’s been in Vermont since the mid-90s.

When Palm meets a dental patient, he’ll ask the basic questions (What medicines are you taking? Do you have allergies? Have you been hospitalized?). But he also likes to forge a deeper connection.

“I also ask ... 'Where'd you grow up? And what high school did you attend? Did you play sports there?’” Palm said. “And I get to find out more information than just what's in their mouths when they open, and I say, ‘Say ah.’"

Palm grew up in Florida and got his undergraduate degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Initially, Palm studied economics in graduate school at American University, figuring he'd work as an economist for the federal government.

“But I wasn't really thinking that far ahead," he said.

Palm switched career paths when his uncle, who was a dentist, offered to pay for dental school.

“So that was actually how I became a dentist," Palm said.

"I get to find out more information than just what's in their mouths when they open and I say, 'Say ah.'" — Dr. Ken Palm

Palm returned to Howard University for dental school. After graduating, he bounced around a bit.

In 1995, he moved from Plattsburg, New York to Vermont, first to work with Kaiser/Community Health Plan of Vermont, and then as the dental director for the Vermont Department of Corrections.

“I had a lot of ideas about how to make dental care more organized, more systematic, more accessible, but at the same time realistic for incarcerated people,” Palm said.

After three years, he was frustrated by the bureaucracy of state government and wanted to get back to working with patients. So in 2000, Palm went back to private practice and opened his Colchester office.

The office is shaped like a donut, with exam rooms and offices circled around the outside and a sterilization station in the center. On a clear day, Camel's Hump is visible from the windows.

top-dentists-kenneth-palm-vpr-reed-20200224.jpg
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
An award for Dr. Ken Palm at his office in Colchester.

All in all, Vermont has been a good place for Palm and his family. But as a black man, Palm said he’s faced challenges. He didn't mention any specific instances, but spoke broadly about the bias that’s inherent around the county.

“It is dangerous for young black men to have interactions with certain police,” he said. “Those are the challenges that are always a part of us. We think about it — we have to.”

Beyond his work, Palm is sort of a renaissance man. He’s got a long list of hobbies, including biking, writing and wood carving — the latter is what he wants to focus on this summer.

He describes his wood carving a process as meditative and spiritual: “I start to decompress, and then I connect with the ancestors and the heavens, and then I start carving.”

Palm was drawn to New England as a kid and now, he’s lived in Vermont longer than he’s lived anywhere else. He doesn’t expect to leave anytime soon.

When asked if a younger version of himself would be surprised that he ended up as a dentist in Vermont, Palm lets out a loud laugh: “Hell yeah.”

February is Black History Month, and all this week, VPR is featuring black entrepreneurs and business owners across Vermont. We'll meet a dairy farmer, a bar owner, a dentist and the owner of an executive search firm.

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