Dental Foundation, Faculty and Staff, Leadership

A look back: Paul Gardner treasures the relationships he’s made at UNC

Adams School of Dentistry's Paul Gardner, executive director of the Dental Foundation of North Carolina with third-year student and cellist Dariel Liakhovetski, DDS '25.

After a career spent raising funds and building relationships, Adams School of Dentistry’s Paul Gardner has plans to put his feet up and read through a stack of accumulated books when he retires at the end of June. It will mark the final fiscal year he’ll spend celebrating the successes of his and his team’s fundraising efforts at the Dental Foundation of North Carolina.

Paul Gardner began his ASOD career in 1998 as a director of development.

Gardner, the executive director of the foundation, has served in his current role at ASOD since 2009, and was part of the ASOD team previously, serving as both a director of development and executive director for the Dental Foundation of North Carolina from 1998-2005. He served the school through two capital campaigns, raising $41 million during the Carolina First Campaign and $97 million in the Campaign for Carolina, the university’s most recent fundraising campaign. He was also part of the team that brought the Koury Oral Health Sciences building to fruition.

A proud Tar Heel and sports fan, Gardner got his bachelor’s degree at Carolina, then joined the media relations team at Georgia Tech, where he worked in sports information until a mentor suggested he would be a good fit as a development officer, based on his communications skills and the climate surrounding financial donations.

“Mr. Warren Heemann was a great mentor, and one of the key things he taught me that I always kept in mind is to take the word “development” to heart, because what we do in this profession is “develop” relationships. We don’t just ask people for money; we develop relationships with people to help them link their passions with our needs,” Gardner said.

Gardner got a taste for development while still at Georgia Tech, but as a proud Carolina alum, he didn’t like the idea of working for another school’s sports team or raising money anywhere else. In 1989, he was able to return to his Carolina “home” and joined the development team at the then-UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, now the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. As a former student in the school, it was a tough decision to move in a new direction, but Gardner was interested in building relationships with alumni who were based in North Carolina, and in 1998, he joined ASOD for the first time as a director of development.

“I came to dentistry initially because I liked the idea of working with an alumni base that was primarily in North Carolina and to work with a different constituency after working for nine years at our UNC School of Journalism,” Gardner said. “Most of our alumni are in North Carolina, so, as someone who grew up here, I always loved learning about connections with my fellow North Carolinians, hitting the road to travel across our state (and the United States, of course), visiting their offices and homes, and learning their stories, why they care about our school, what they think would help improve our school, and why they want to help us.”

Gardner was part of the team that closed the gift to name Adams School of Dentistry and with the creation of the Koury Oral Health Sciences building.

He spent the next seven years at ASOD, building relationships and working on major gifts, including the school’s naming for Dr. Claude A. Adams, joining forces with the late former Dean John Stamm, DDS, DDPH, M.SC.D, Ron Strauss, DMD, PhD, and Dr. Adams to name the school. After growing his career in new roles at Washington and Lee School of Law and at UNC School of Law, Gardner returned to ASOD and his current position, taking the helm as executive director of the foundation.

Gardner with Harald Heymann at the 2022 Best of Dentistry event.

“I missed the alumni and friends I had worked with in my initial stint, and I wanted to be here when Dr. Adams’ gift was realized. I also remembered what Mr. Heemann had stressed to me; we develop relationships with our donors, and longevity in those relationships is important. The best development occurs when people know their institution and their constituency and have had time to build trust with those alumni, friends, faculty, staff, and friends,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to work at the UNC ASOD for 21 years (Carolina for 32), and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with first, second and even third generation dentists – fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and even some grandchildren who are alumni of our school.”

Working with so many people from many different walks of life has been one of the perks of Gardner’s job, and something he will miss after he retires.

“I love the alumni and friends that I work with. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and a lot of our alumni are first-generation college graduates, or certainly the first generation to earn a professional graduate degree. I also have loved working with the staff in our Office of Advancement, the deans, and our faculty, staff, and students. I’m proud of my alma mater and the privilege to represent it, and I take tremendous pride in being able to represent the amazing people we’re trying to help with scholarships and professorships.”

A caring Carolina community

The dental school has provided a community that Gardner has been proud to be part of, and he recalls feeling that closeness when his children were born, as he and his wife received congratulations messages, gifts and well-wishes from people at the school, as well as alumni. And those relationships are not just one-offs, but sustained friendships with others who care about the school as Gardner does.

“We exchange holiday cards, book and music recommendations, celebrate Tar Heel wins and commiserate after Tar Heels losses. They ask about [my wife] and the kids. They take me to play golf, take us to concerts or rodeos, to dinners and lunches. We were fortunate to close a lot of contributions, but they weren’t just business transactions. They were important moments in rewarding relationships with wonderful, generous, caring people,” he said.

Gardner serves pancakes at the annual Dean’s Holiday Breakfast at ASOD.

And while Gardner is looking forward to officially retiring and spending more time with his parents, wife, daughter and son, he will miss feeling as if he’s contributing and giving back as he moves on to his next chapter.

“{I will miss ]the feeling of doing something important every day I worked for this institution,” he said. “Our terrific staff – Kaylee, Anjie, Iris, Caitlin, Sarah – and I are working with people who give their hard-earned dollars to our school to help people they don’t know. And, yet, people have done it since the school opened its doors and will continue to do it forever because they agree that what we do in these classrooms and clinics is important to the people of North Carolina, our country, and around the world.”

Leaving a lasting legacy

Come July, Gardner will most likely be found out on the links perfecting his backswing, checking out some barbecue joints with his dad or discussing books with his mom, but he can be sure there are people at the dental school and beyond who will miss him and his contributions to the school’s culture.

“Paul’s dedication to the Dental Foundation of North Carolina and ASOD is unparalleled. We have been so fortunate to have Paul on our team;  it’s hard to picture our dental school without him. His contributions to our school are many, and I am so grateful to have worked alongside him. Congratulations on your retirement, Paul! We will miss you!” said Janet Guthmiller, DDS, PhD, dean, Adams School of Dentistry.

“Working with Paul has been the single most transformational opportunity I’ve had in my career,” said Anjie Basnight, marketing coordinator at the foundation. “He has encouraged me to grow and to learn everything. He has truly given me the tools to be the professional I am today. His heart has driven the many successes of this team and although Adams will never be the same, I know I’m not the only one excited for Paul’s next adventure.”

“It has been a professional and personal privilege to work with Paul over the past 14 years,” said Sarah Huppert, senior director of development at the foundation. “He has taught me everything I know, like how to wrap all your pent-up stress and anxiety into rooting for the ‘Heels, which nonfiction historical biographies are must-reads, and most importantly, how to support this beloved school and university. I wish him all the luck in his next career as a volunteer scout for the St. Louis Cardinals!”

“I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Paul for the past seven years.  He has been a wonderful leader whose passion for the school and its people does not go unnoticed to those around him. Paul will certainly be missed but I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him and his family; hopefully a lot of baseball games, golf, concerts and relaxation!” said Kaylee Cutler, assistant director of development at the foundation.

And no matter the pastime he focuses on during his well-deserved free time, Gardner will remember his time with ASOD and the impact he had there.

“I was part of a family. A family of faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends who all care about our school, their classmates, their peers, our students and me.”