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Friends remember Pocatellan who helped shape dental hygiene industry

February 20, 2019
Denise “Nina” Bowen, left, celebrates with her friends Brooke Agado, center, and Tara Johnson. Bowen, who helped engineer the Oral-B Indicator, died on Feb. 17.

POCATELLO — People throughout the world know when it’s time to replace their worn toothbrushes due in large part to the ingenuity of Denise “Nina” Bowen.

Bowen, 64, passed away on Feb. 17 with loved ones by her side, following a brief illness. Friends will celebrate her life beginning at 5 p.m. Friday at Juniper Hills Country Club.

Among her many contributions to the field of dental hygiene, Bowen helped to engineer the Oral-B Indicator — those strands of blue on your toothbrush that fade away with use, providing a visual depiction of bristle wear.

She also flew to China, Russia and several Third World nations to help establish dental hygiene programs. And two days before her death, she learned that plans are underway to publish “Dental Hygiene Theory and Practice, Fifth Edition,” the latest version of a book she helped author that’s been described as the quintessential text for dental hygiene students throughout the country.

Bowen is remembered as a giant in her field who brought tremendous prestige to Idaho State University — where at 22 years old she became the youngest professor in the university’s history in 1976. But those who knew her best say they were most impressed by her devotion to friends and her compassion for those in need.

“The people who didn’t have Nina to touch them were the people who were missing something,” said Tom Dahlquist, her life partner of 13 years.

Longtime friend Judy Barton, of Pocatello, survived a lengthy battle with cancer and said Bowen’s emotional support was critical to her recovery.

“She was my savior during my illness and the most wonderful friend I could ever ask for,” Barton said. “She championed everyone who got sick. She went to the doctor with me. She made sure I had meals. She always encouraged me to fight and get well.”

Bowen is survived by Dahlquist and her twin sister, Diane Borden, of Annapolis, Maryland. Borden said her children, Danielle and Brian, and her grandchildren, SimiJo, Holland and Van, were essentially adopted by Bowen, who loved them as her own.

“Denise was the great connector. Her heart was the size of Texas. There was never a task out of love or devotion that was too great for her to accomplish,” Borden said. “Anybody and everybody was welcome and important.”

Borden said her sister was known to organize wedding or baby showers for new acquaintances if they had no one else to perform the task.

Brooke Agado, a former student of Bowen’s, explained Bowen agreed to finish the dental hygiene tome that will soon be published out of love for a friend. The fifth edition will also list Michele Darby and Margaret Walsh as authors.

Agado said Walsh was on her deathbed when she implored Bowen to see the project to fruition. Bowen suffered a brain aneurysm in September and underwent surgery on the frontal lobe of her brain, but she pressed forward on the textbook, nonetheless, and completed the work in December.

Agado went on to teach in ISU’s Dental Hygiene program for more than 12 years. When Agado finished her master’s thesis, delving into periodontal treatments for patients with respiratory diseases, Bowen presented her findings internationally, at a symposium in Scotland.

“She pushed you to your potential,” Agado said. “Her support and dedication has made me so proud of who I am today. She did everything in her power to make everyone else’s achievements higher and grander than her own.”

Bowen’s lifelong friend, Bessie Katsilometes, who retired two years ago as associate vice president for ISU’s Health Science Center in Meridian, said Bowen’s professional accomplishments, both in the U.S. and abroad, made her a “true icon” in her profession.

Bowen spent two decades on Oral-B’s board of directors. She was the first woman to chair ISU’s Faculty Senate, and she served as chair of her department for a decade.

“Her energy and her life-force and her joy were so vibrant. She would walk into a room and it would light up,” Katsolimetes said.

Another close friend of Bowen’s, Tara Johnson, who is an associate professor of dental hygiene at ISU, said Bowen was instrumental in launching ISU’s graduate program for dental hygiene.

“She helped write the grants that funded the initiation of that program and helped implement the program,” Johnson said. “She was the major advisor for the majority of graduates from that program and was instrumental in getting it funded and off the ground.”

Bowen also helped ISU organize celebrations throughout 2001 in recognition of the university’s centennial year. Friends from ISU said Bowen was the chief fundraiser for those celebrations.