Remembering Kevin O’Dea

For twenty-five years, he kept Tufts School of Dental Medicine online, with a smile
Kevin O'Dea standing with Anthony Monaco at a Tufts event
“He always had time to help you, no matter who you were,” said dental school Dean Emeritus Lonnie Norris of Kevin O’Dea, here with Tufts President Anthony Monaco in March 2015, when he was recognized for thirty years of service. Photo: Matthew Healey
August 12, 2019

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There has hardly been a patient, student, teacher, or employee who has come through One Kneeland Street in the past twenty-five years whose experience wasn’t improved by Kevin O’Dea. O’Dea, who oversaw IT at the School of Dental Medicine, played a key role in every major technology initiative there for several decades. When he died July 28, he left a legacy of not only technical achievement. He left a dental school community that will miss his easy-going manner, his unceasing willingness to help, his patience, and his smile.

“When his brother gave the eulogy at his funeral, he talked about Kevin’s smile, and that really hit home. He always had a smile, and it was genuine,” said Darren Drag, D00, DG01, DG02, director of clinic operations for Tufts Dental Facilities (TDF), the network of clinics for special-needs patients. O’Dea led the effort to connect the clinics to the dental school’s axiUm computer system. Even though the TDF clinics are scattered around Massachusetts, O’Dea would regularly show up at each of them, unannounced, to check on the systems and troubleshoot any problems.

O’Dea began his career at Tufts in 1985, as a computer operator and shift supervisor, and later became assistant manager of operations for all three campuses. He became information system manager at the dental school in 1995. Most recently he was director of data and systems security, overseeing privacy compliance (he called himself “the HIPAA guy”) and cybersecurity.

“I first met Kevin when he interviewed me for the dean of academic affairs position,” said Dean Nadeem Karimbux. “His questions about technology were challenging but I knew from the way that he expressed himself that he was kind and caring.  He was a presence for many students, faculty, staff and patients and he will be missed dearly.”

O’Dea’s first major project for the dental school was moving the clinics onto an electronic data system that covered everything from scheduling, to billing, to maintaining medical records to grading students. “It was very challenging, it affected the whole school, and he did a stellar job,” said Dean Emeritus Lonnie Norris, DG80. “His responsibilities were in high demand, but he had a very calming personality.”

Patricia Campbell, former executive vice president for the university, worked with O’Dea during that move from paper to digital when she was executive associate dean at the School of Dental medicine. “We couldn’t have done it without his calm, always helpful and professional approach to his work,” Campbell said. 

“He pretty much became the face of the axiUm system,” said Beth Conant, the dental school’s director of clinic finance and administration. “If you had a problem, you went  to Kevin, or someone on Kevin’s team. He was always seeking the best possible solution for the group, and for the school.”

Another major project that relied on O’Dea’s skillful, behind-the-scenes expertise was the dental school’s $68 million, five-floor vertical expansion to One Kneeland, which added, among other facilities, two floors of clinical space and the technology-heavy Simulation Clinic. “That was no small undertaking,” Conant said.

And as dental education relied more heavily on classroom technology, O’Dea was there to help faculty make the transition. “I remember when we changed from slides to digital images in the classroom,” Norris said. “I was having trouble with that, and he sat and showed me how to do it.” And, it wasn’t just because Norris was the dean. “He didn’t care whether you were faculty, administration, a student, a fellow staffer—we all used IT, and he treated us all equally. He always had time to help you, no matter who you were.”

In 2005, the Tufts University Dental Alumni Association presented O’Dea with its Employee of the Year award.

“One of the things that impressed me about Kevin when we first met was his ability to relate to the work, and his ability to translate it,” said Theresa Regan, who became O’Dea’s supervisor after the creation of the centralized Tufts Technology Services. “On a typical day, he might have to talk to a bunch of IT colleagues. Then he might have to work with a student, who only cared that their manikin was working. Then he might have to help a faculty member who had never given a presentation in a large auditorium or talk to a compliance person. He could make sure everybody felt comfortable.”

The day after O’Dea’s death, Campbell was with Professor John Morgan and dental students on a service trip in Zambia. The group decided to dedicate its work there to O’Dea. “The response of the students was heartfelt,” said Campbell.

O’Dea was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in 2014, but most of the people he interacted with were unaware of the extent of his illness, and his death at age fifty-seven—a week before his birthday—was a shock to many at Tufts. “He was an incredibly courageous person,” Regan said. “It was never about him; it was always about everyone else,” Drag said.

And O’Dea’s colleagues recalled his passion for his family. “I just sat next to him at a meeting, and he was showing me pictures from his daughter’s wedding,” said Conant. “And he was never shy to show you pictures of his new grandbaby.” O’Dea and his wife, Jane, had two daughters, Erin Sheehan and Maura Lyons, and a granddaughter, Addison Jane Lyons. He is also survived by his brothers Robert, James, and John.

Donations may be made to kidney cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, http://danafarber.org/give or 10 Brookline Place West, Brookline, MA, 02445, attn: Annual Giving Department. The School of Dental Medicine and Tufts Technology Services is planning a celebration of O’Dea’s life for the near future.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.