Frank Kestler is not your everyday dentist — far from it. Not only is he an Island native, son of Frances Rowe Kestler and Elmer Kestler, he’s a third-generation dental professional who has practiced forensic dentistry as well as the usual kind. He’s also a commissioned officer in the National Guard who’s been mobilized twice. His last stint in 2008 was in western Iraq, heading a joint clinic (Navy, Air Force and Marines) in a combat support hospital. And he’s father and stepfather to six.
Frank’s Shelter Island roots go deep. “My grandparents, James and Margaret Rowe, used to summer at the Old Prospect Hotel, top of the hill right up from North Ferry. That’s where they met.” Eventually the family came to own much of Westmoreland with its numerous houses, where they still live today.
“My first summer on the Island was in 1956, the year I was born. I remember growing up here. I thought it was heaven. My grandfather was the benevolent dictator, kind of kept us all together” and assigned living space — which house each family would have — each summer. “It was always a special time. He used to take us on fishing trips. We’d look for sharks. I have great memories. He’d been a fighter pilot and I remember flying with him.” In case anyone is wondering, Westmoreland had (and still has) a private grass strip.
During the rest of the year, Frank was at home in Queens going to grade school and then Holy Cross High School. He went on to graduate from Catholic University in Washington D.C. in 1978 with a major in managerial accounting. He worked for several years in the insurance industry and earned an M.B.A. at St. John’s University in 1982.
“I was 27, 28 then and I just got this idea, I didn’t like commuting, traveling. I wanted to spend more time here. I wanted my family to be raised here. I decided to go back to school, to dental school. My dad is a dentist. His father,” Elmer Kestler Sr., “was a dental lab technician and he got the family started in dentistry. He had gotten accepted to dental school but didn’t feel he could do it because he had a family. So for the next 40 years, he worked as a dental lab technician, a gold specialist.”
“But his son went to dental school so I grew up with it. I knew what it was about. My dad had his dinner with his family and I thought this was a way to go for my family.” In 1983, his wife pregnant at the time, he started dental school at New York University. “I thought it was going to be tough. We’d have to move in with my grandmother who had a house in Queens. I commuted every day for four years.” He also had two kids, Jackie and Frankie. A third child, Nicholas, came a few years later.
He began work as a dentist in his father’s Queens office but almost immediately became interested in forensics, the application of dentistry to the identification of the dead, comparing ante-mortem to post-mortem records. “I found that interesting. I worked at the medical examiner’s office in Manhattan and then became a deputy forensic consultant at the Queens office and the Brooklyn office. I was building a reputation, started getting called in on high-profile cases instead of just John Does on their way to Potter’s Field.
“I did get a little sidetracked, finding this love of forensics. But then I had to put things in perspective. If I was to continue, I would have to live in Queens most of the time.
In 1993, I moved my family out to the Island full time and gave up the forensics. I kept the practice in Queens for a few years until I finally started working out here, first for a dentist in Mattituck, then in 1998 in my own practice.”
Three years ago, Dan Moran — the Shelter Island dentist and poet — called him to say he was taking a teaching position at Boston University Dental School; he asked if Frank would be interested in buying his practice. “I was in my early 50s. Do I want to take on a second practice? I talked to my wife and we went for it and it’s worked out beautifully. We filled a need here. We renovated the office, the walls had mold and rot, and redid the whole thing and the landscaping. My wife has an eye for detail. I have to give her all the credit. We wanted it to be something nice to look at.”
Frank has been married twice. Divorced in the late ‘90s, he married Chrystyna Theinert, shortly thereafter. She had three sons, William, Joseph and James, “but we call them Billy, Joey and Jimbo.” They were all adolescents at the time, the children having gone to school together “forever.”
“We had a ‘Brady Bunch,’ five boys and one girl. We had a great time,” Frank said. “Two of the boys were in the same class. They were all close together in age. We rented on different parts of the Island and then around 2000 came back to Westmoreland.” Islanders will recognize Joey Theinert’s name, of course — the young soldier killed on active duty in Afghanistan.
“This June it will be two years and we all grieve in different ways,” Frank said. “Chrystyna has gotten involved in soldier’s causes, Joe’s foundation, the Joseph Theinert Memorial Fund, a 501(c)3. She did all the work to get that set up. She’s active with the Wounded Warriors bicycle run, has been down to Walter Reed to visit with the wounded. She just wants to be around soldiers now. Out of the six kids, we always knew Joe was going to be a soldier — since I met him at the age of eight. The loss of a child? At times it’s still surreal to me, tough to wrap my head around it. I still think he’s off on a deployment somewhere.”
He went on to describe the reaction of Joe’s platoon when they visited here last spring.
“They were shocked at the outpouring of support, amazed by the Shelter Island community, all the support. They were put up at people’s homes. And the Legion, I can’t say enough about Mike Loriz and everyone there, the receptions for them. They were in shock the whole time. We had a reception for them here in the backyard. We got to hear about Joey and how they all loved him and respected him and thought he was a real leader. It made us all feel good.”
A man with a military resumé like his father and grandfather, he volunteered for the National Guard in 1990 when the U.S. invaded Kuwait. “By the time they processed my application, the war was over,” he said. He was offered a direct commission as a lieutenant in the reserves and he accepted. In 2008, he was called up and spent six months in Iraq.
“They knew I could do dentistry but I was trained to be a triage officer as well, to evaluate casualties, assign their care or assist in surgery. You get a lot of training and you hope that you never have to do any of it but that’s what you’re trained to do.”
This August he’ll go overseas again, this time to Afghanistan, attached to a small medical company serving outlying bases. “It will be a chance to take care of both soldiers and locals,” he said. “I think it will be a great experience. I’m hoping to get close to where my stepson was and I’m hoping I’ll be able to visit soldiers there.”
All in all, Dr. Kestler is feeling positive about the life he’s carved out. “I split my time between Shelter Island and Mattituck. I’m so lucky to have a career right here where I grew up, where I always wanted to be.”