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 "Dr. Karen Clements-Crunk"

In 1965, Karen Fox walked into her first day of classes at the University Of Alabama School Of Dentistry in Birmingham, Alabama. She was the only woman in the room. In fact, she was the only woman in her entire class of 52 students.

“At the time, there were only two other female dental students at the School, and both were in classes ahead of me. I didn’t think there’d be many women in my class, but I didn’t know I’d be the only one. It was a strange feeling,” she recalls.

Prior to coming to the School, Karen – who is now formally known as Dr. Karen Clements-Crunk – admits that she and her family didn’t realize how monumental it was at the time for her to attend dental school. “My mother and father encouraged my pursuit of medicine. I was an only child and, in their eyes, I could do anything. It didn’t occur to them that it would be ‘ground-breaking,’ even though most of the physicians they knew were male.”

Dr. Clements-Crunk remembers spending Saturday mornings shadowing her own dentist, Dr. Perry Davis, at his office near her childhood home in Santa Ana in Orange County, California. “He was an Emory University graduate, and he would’ve graduated dental school in the 1930s, so I’m certain he didn’t attend school with very many women, if any. But he was instrumental in moving me along towards dentistry.”

So in 1962, Karen moved to Tuscaloosa as a pre-dentistry major at the University of Alabama. In those days, pre-dental students could attend the University of Alabama for three years, and then receive their undergraduate degree after their first year in dental school. 

“It was certainly a different time. My lunchtime buddies became the other two female students, and the hygienists, assistants, and other women who worked in the clinic,” said Karen. “The only place we had for women to hang out in was the women’s restroom across from the cafeteria. It was set up as a lounge and there were a couple tables in there, so we used to eat our lunch in the restroom!”

Immediately after graduating in 1969, Dr. Clements-Crunk began her residency in pediatric dentistry at the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. She met her late husband, Dr. Ralph Clements II (’65), at the Hinman Dental Society Meetings in the spring of 1970. Dr. Clements was an orthodontist and was getting ready to head to Tuscaloosa to open his own practice when they met. Both were quickly smitten. 

“We got engaged during my last year of residency. I finished residency on a Thursday, we got married that Saturday, and then went off to work on Monday! We were too poor to afford a honeymoon so that was it!” Dr. Clements-Crunk laughed. 

The couple practiced together in a small office, until 1980 when they built their own office building, designed specifically for them. They had one son, Ralph Clements III, in 1973. In 1983, when Ralph II passed away unexpectedly, Karen sold his practice to Dr. Frank Pate (’79) with whom she practiced with until 1990, when Dr. Pate sold his practice to Dr. Rick Bryant (’83) who stayed for another ten years. For the last nine years of her career, until her retirement in 2009, Dr. Clements-Crunk practiced by herself, still in the same office she and Ralph built nearly 30 years before.

“I’m just so glad I became a pediatric dentist! I think we have a lot more fun,” Karen chuckled. “You really get to know these young patients, as well as their parents, and you watch them grow up. It’s still special to be out around town somewhere and see this big, strapping 30-or-40-year-old man come up to me and say, ‘Dr. Clements! Hey!’ and give me a hug!”

These days, Karen and her current husband, Dr. Phillip Crunk, University of Alabama professor emeritus whom she married in 1994, split their time between Tuscaloosa and their home in Asheville, North Carolina. Her son Ralph has two children, Ralph M. Clements, IV (20) and Turner (14), and Phillip has three children – Dr. Amy Crunk-Traylor, Laurie Crunk, and Phillip Crunk – and five grandchildren. The family loves to travel together, with Europe being a favorite vacation destination.

Dr. Karen Clements-Crunk was the 14th woman to graduate from the University of Alabama School of Dentistry. Despite criticism from some of her professors and classmates, Karen’s diligence and will to succeed enabled her the career of serving others that she had worked so hard to acheive. After the pandemic is over, Dr. Clements-Crunk hopes to help plan a reunion for all female graduates from the first thirty years of the dental school, to come together and celebrate their accomplishments. Until then, she’ll continue to be known around the Tuscaloosa-area by her former patients and their parents as a beloved pediatric dentist.