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WVU School of Dentistry alumni donate $100,000 to honor late classmate

L-R: Dr. Joe Vargo, Dr. Annie Hu, Dr. Ross Crist

L-R: Dr. Joe Vargo, Dr. Annie Hu, Dr. Ross Crist

As a tribute to a late graduate, more than 20 West Virginia University School of Dentistry orthodontic alumni collectively donated $100,000 to expand educational opportunities for students in the Department of Orthodontics.

Dr. Joe Vargo, a 1996 WVU orthodontics graduate, spearheaded the fundraising effort after classmate Dr. Ross Crist, age 64, died of cancer on July 16. Donations support the Annie Hu Memorial Fund, which helps orthodontics students attend conferences, professional programs and other off-campus educational experiences that supplement their graduate work at WVU.

“It’s inspiring to see our orthodontics alumni come together to support future generations in memory of a fellow graduate,” Dr. Fotinos Panagakos, interim dean of the School of Dentistry, said. “Supplemental opportunities that build upon the educational foundation laid by School of Dentistry faculty are critical, because they broaden our students’ knowledge while also emphasizing the importance of continuing education to maintaining and enhancing clinical skills.”

The Hu Memorial Fund is named for the third member of the orthodontics class of 1996, who also died of cancer. When Dr. Hu passed in 2001, Crist and Vargo raised more than $10,000 from orthodontics alumni to create the endowed fund devoted to one of her passions – continuing education.

Supporting that fund remained a priority for Crist in the years that followed. He made 16 gifts to the Hu Memorial Fund during his lifetime, including $17,500 in direct contributions and a trust gift pledge made with Lisa, his wife of 41 years, as part of their estate plan.

Crist earned his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry in 1981 and practiced general dentistry before pursuing specialty training at WVU. He operated his own orthodontics practice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, from 1996 until his death.

“I had intentions for years to help increase the fund’s net value after Annie passed. I was doing life with my family every day when Ross passed, and I felt like ‘here’s my calling,’” Vargo said. “I’ve got to do something to memorialize my friend and celebrate his life.”

Vargo set a goal to raise $100,000 in eight weeks and started by contacting alumni he knew, sending weekly emails and making calls. Those graduates, along with School of Dentistry faculty and staff, helped him connect with others eager to contribute.

“It’s been comforting in a lot of ways,” Vargo said. “We’ve been given so much – an opportunity to make patient’s lives better, first of all, to study and do what we do as orthodontists every day. Finances in any organization can be limited. In order for things to continue and for our profession to get better, this is a perfect opportunity to give back and help the program.”

‘Icing on the cake’

Dr. Joe Vargo

A native of Fayette City, Pa., Vargo earned his bachelor’s degree from Washington & Jefferson College and his Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry degree from the University of Pittsburgh, followed by a General Practice Residency at Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh. He was drawn to WVU for orthodontics because of its unique emphasis on personality, selecting students who will form a cohesive team to improve the educational experience.

Upon arrival, he said WVU’s orthodontics program was “nothing less than a perfect situation.” He received comprehensive training from renowned faculty from across the country, as well as returning alumni. He appreciated that students were encouraged to explore and learn a variety of techniques, rather than being limited to a specific approach as students are at many universities.

Vargo said Crist and Hu were “the icing on the cake.” As friends and classmates, they all shared lots of laughs and worked together to help one another succeed. They also conspired to broaden their education; Hu was always their spokeswoman when it came to seeking supplemental opportunities.

“Annie was so sweet, and the professors absolutely loved her,” Vargo said. “It was very hard to say no to her.”

Dr. Peter Ngan was among the faculty members fielding her requests. Ngan has chaired the Department of Orthodontics, which recently marked its 50th anniversary, since 1994. Vargo credited Ngan’s leadership for the program’s impressive growth and alumni engagement since he graduated.

“It’s amazing how much camaraderie, trust and friendship can build up in such a short three years,” Ngan said. “Annie was the most lovable resident who always cared for others; Ross is a natural leader in the pack that eventually served as President of numerous orthodontic groups; Joe still holds the record of being the youngest resident ever to attend an orthodontic program and is the smartest person I have known. The three of them helped each other out through difficult times in their education and career. Their success stories are models for our new residents and alumni to follow.”

Vargo believes Crist and Hu would be humbled to see their lasting impact on WVU’s orthodontics program.

“They knew they were loved, but if they could see the outpouring right now, they would be speechless,” he said.

Vargo operates his own orthodontics practice in Rome, Georgia, about 70 miles northwest of Atlanta. A Diplomat of the American Board of Orthodontics, he has received international recognition for his research publications and frequently lectures to orthodontic graduate students and civic organizations. He has two children, Sophia and Denton.

To contribute to the Annie Hu Memorial Fund, contact Director of Development Karen Coombs at or 304-216-3784. All gifts are made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.

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