The Way We Were: Dr. Christian Berdy

The Way We Were: Dr. Christian Berdy
Drs. Christian and Cary Berdy in office.

Since 1975, Dr. Christian Berdy has been a well-known Jacksonville periodontist, a specialist in the treatment of gums. His life can be characterized as one of perseverance and selflessness.

Berdy’s parents were born in Austria and met in a Jewish refugee center in France in the late 1930s. Berdy was born in occupied France in the city of Lyon in 1942 and had an older sister. “We were very lucky to survive the war as a family intact,” he said.

Both of his parents being non-French citizens in post WWII made it very difficult for them to earn a living. “We never talked about that phase of their life because it was such a miserable time,” Berdy said. He and his siblings were able to put together bits and pieces of the story over the years.

Their family immigrated to the United States in 1949 when Berdy was nearly 7 years old, and his younger brother was born a few years later. Upon their arrival to the US, the Berdy family lived in Bayone, New Jersey and then on Staten Island, New York. Both residences were in the homes of relatives until there was enough income to secure their own place. Berdy acquired his third language, English, in the States after growing up with his parents’ native tongue, German, and his own, French.

Dr. Berdy in Staten Island, NY at 8 years old.
Dr. Berdy in Staten Island, NY at 8 years old.

His mom was a schoolteacher, but her Austrian credentials were not accepted by the New York City school system, so she taught at a private, Catholic school. His dad built furniture and restored antiques. He liked to sing, too, so he did so in a local cathedral on Sundays.

Berdy lived on Staten Island until he was in the seventh grade. In 1955, the family moved to Denver, Colorado because his parents liked to ski. So, that’s where Berdy completed junior high and high school. He went on to the University of Colorado in Boulder. That was before the school had spread to multiple campuses and before Berdy knew that a student could attend an out-of-state school.

One of Berdy’s jobs as a teenager was working in his dad’s furniture workshop. One of their customers was a dentist who gave Berdy a summer job in his office. That’s when Berdy decided that dentistry would be a better profession for him than carpentry. At that time, the Denver area had no dental schools, so he applied to several out of state.

His first acceptance was from the University of Illinois. “I didn’t know I was going to be accepted to other schools, so I accepted them,” he said. He requested dormitory housing on the Chicago campus, but a technical error prevented that. As still happens sometimes to this day, Berdy’s first name, Christian, was mistaken for Christine, and he was assigned to a girls’ room. At that time, student housing was strictly segregated, males from females, so he pointed out the error to the administration department and was told, “You’re 21, so find your own place.”

Berdy packed all his worldly possessions into his Volkswagen and drove the 24 hours it took to drive from Denver to Chicago on the old US highway system. He found an available bed in the worst part of town at the men’s YMCA. Upon waking his first morning there, he noticed in the shared restroom a man two sinks down from him shaving with a straight-edge razor held in his fingers devoid a holder. “I thought to myself, ‘This doesn’t work very well for me. The environment is not going to be very healthy,’” Berdy said.

He found, instead, a dental fraternity that offered him a rented room for $25 per month in a leased house owned by the University of Illinois, a house that had been condemned ten years prior. “It had running water sometimes, and sometimes it didn’t,” he said. Roaches were his roommates. But he was a dental student pursuing a dream, and so, he stayed.

Books, tuition, and supplies cost approximately $1,000 per year back then. Berdy was able to secure a small scholarship to help. He worked for the rest.

One of his jobs was as a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority. Summer pay was a whopping $2,000. It was the 1960s during the King riots. Streets were on fire. “Driving a bus in Chicago, picking up 30 passengers at a time, and staying on schedule is a challenge. I had five accidents that summer,” Berdy admitted, so he wasn’t hired back. The following summer, he worked as a steel mill mechanic’s helper.

After undergrad and dental schooling in Illinois, Berdy enlisted in the Navy as a Reserve officer during the Vietnam era. He was assigned to a base in Long Beach, California. From there, he was sent to the Philippines for two years as a Navy dentist. He traveled to India, Thailand, and Japan on R&R, military free time. “It opened up my eyes to world travel,” he said.

Navy Lieutenant Commander Christian Berdy.
Navy Lieutenant Commander Christian Berdy.

From the Philippines, Berdy was not ready to return to civilian life quite yet; so, he re-enlisted and was sent to Naval Air Station Jacksonville for the next two years. A local dentist, Dr. Charles Hester, was on sick leave and needed a substitute in his office. Berdy and his friend, Dr. Charles Prizzia, filled in. (Years later, Prizzia would be named godfather to one of Berdy’s sons.) When they, as general dentists, encountered patients with gum problems, they made referrals to the practice of Scott, Watson, and Miller. Berdy was impressed with how good his patients’ gums looked after only a few months of treatment and decided he wanted to learn that field. “That’s how I got into being a gum specialist,” he said.

He resigned his commission from the Navy and went to periodontist school, a two-year residency program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. During his residency, he maintained a part-time practice in nearby Southern Pines. His teachers didn’t like that they had a student already in practice.

Halfway through his program, Berdy attended a national convention of periodontists in Atlanta, Georgia. There, he re-connected with Drs. Scott, Watson, and Miller and expressed interest in joining their practice. It happened on a handshake. He joined them in Riverside immediately after graduation in 1975.

Drs. Berdy, Miller, Watson, and Scott.
Drs. Berdy, Miller, Watson, and Scott.

They practiced in a building on the corner of Stockton and Park Streets. In 1976, they opened satellite offices in Orange Park and Bay Meadows. Dr. Frank Scott retired in 1985, well-known throughout the Southeast. “He was the grandfather of periodontists for our particular area,” Berdy said.

As it says on his website, “Dr. Berdy is the only remaining doctor of this historic practice that was renamed Berdy Dental Group in 2016.” His younger son, Cary, a general dentist, began working with his dad four years ago.

Berdy’s older son, Christopher, is an attorney in Alabama. Berdy’s current wife, Debbie, has a daughter, Sonia, in Gainesville. In the blended family are five amazing  grandchildren.

He’s been a Rotarian with the Riverside Rotary Club since the 1980s. During that time, he has made multiple mission trips to remote areas of Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala to perform dental work on the local people, mainly extractions. Those activities have been curtailed for a while due to COVID.

Berdy is an unselfish man. He knows that his staff hears when he tells patients of his world travels, and he wants his receptionists, hygienists, and assistants to have opportunities he’s been given. “I’ve taken staff overseas to see the world as well. We’ve gone to dental meetings in different parts of the world, so they’ve had the opportunity to travel,” he said. They’ve attended meetings as close as Orlando and as far as London, Paris, and Monte Carlo. On the way to a California convention to give a lecture, Berdy and the staff stopped at the Grand Canyon for a tour. He’s taken as many as 12 or 14 people with him on trips.

The theme of Berdy’s life has been service to his patients. “In dentistry, the work that you do is very satisfying when the patient’s mouth gets healthy, or when you’ve reconstructed a smile, when you give them new hope on smiling and looking at themselves in the mirror. That is very gratifying,” he said.

Dr. Berdy, wife Debbie, Debbie’s granddaughters Emily & Olivia, Debbie’s daughter Sonia, Sonia’s husband David.
Dr. Berdy, wife Debbie, Debbie’s granddaughters Emily & Olivia, Debbie’s daughter Sonia, Sonia’s husband David.

Dr. Berdy serves not only his staff and patients but also organized dentistry. He is past president of the Clay County Dental Society, Florida Academy of Dental Practice Administration, and Florida Society of Periodontists. He has been a member of the American Dental Association since 1968. He continues to be a member of the Florida Society of Periodontists and the Duval County Dental Society as well.

Berdy reminisced about what Jacksonville was like without Internet or cell phones and with fewer people. “The roads are more clogged than ever,” he said. That might be one of the biggest changes he’s noticed in Jacksonville since he arrived nearly five decades ago. And Jacksonville is all the better for him having come.

“I feel like I’m the American dream. I’m a refugee immigrant. And yet, I’ve been able to get good schooling and have been able to serve back to the community. To me, the United States is the best place in the whole wide world,” Berdy said.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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