Helping hand

Through scholarship, dental alumni honor staff member

By Nan Johnson

From throwing pool parties and frying chicken to helping navigate licensure exams and offering professional advice, Hazel Luton would do just about anything for the dentistry students at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Hazel was like a surrogate mother to me,” Mark Beltrami (D.D.S.’95/D) says. “She took students under her wing. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do to help us.”

As the School of Dentistry Class of 1995’s Reunion approached, along with Luton’s milestone anniversary of 40 years with the School of Dentistry, Beltrami set the pace for his classmates and colleagues with a $10,000 lead gift to establish the Hazel Luton Scholarship.

Luton is the first staff member at the school to be honored with the creation of a scholarship. Now surpassing $45,000 in gifts and pledges, the scholarship will be awarded for the first time in fall 2017 to a rising second-year student who embodies Luton’s compassion for people.

“Hazel is beloved by so many. She is a parental figure as well as a supportive staff member,” says David C. Sarrett, D.M.D., M.S., dean of the VCU School of Dentistry and associate vice president for VCU Health Sciences-Faculty Affairs. “This scholarship is a testament to her many kindnesses. It will benefit generations of students who will receive financial assistance in her name.”

The cost of a dental education adds to rising student debt across the country, Sarrett explains. It’s a national problem, though VCU’s dental student debt is below average.

“If our average student debt is $190,000, and we only have $250,000 available in scholarship support at the school, we’ve got a long way to go to help improve the situation,” he says. “That’s why the Hazel Luton Scholarship is so important and very much appreciated. The more it grows, the more students can benefit.”

In the ’90s, dentistry student Beltrami reaped some of the benefits of Luton’s generosity. He lived a street away from Luton and would give her rides to campus in the snow. Beltrami moved to the Tidewater region of Virginia after graduation, but a job change took him to Petersburg, Virginia. To ease the commute before his eventual move to nearby Chesterfield, Luton gave Beltrami a key to her home, where he would stay a few times a week.

“That’s the kind of person she is,” Beltrami says. “My kids thought she was their grandmother for years. When my son found out she wasn’t, he cried.”

Pool parties with fried chicken were frequent in those days, when Luton would offer up a cookout as a ruse for a few strong students to come over and move furniture at her home.

“I’d grab a couple of buddies, and we’d go over to help,” Beltrami recalls.

Today, he still thinks Luton’s fried chicken is the best.

Luton, who began her career 50 years ago as a dental assistant in Emporia, Virginia, is now the part-time clinical operations compliance assistant in the School of Dentistry. Over the years, she’s served in many capacities within the school, from adjunct instructor to site coordinator for regional board exams. But in every phase of her career, her students have always come first.

“I look back and am so blessed for the opportunities and friendships I have had, and I wouldn’t trade a day for anything,” Luton says.

Sarrett made the surprise announcement of the scholarship during Reunion activities in April.

“I was totally shocked,” Luton says. “I never dreamed that anything like this would ever happen, let alone that it would come from the students. It was amazing.”

Just like her fried chicken.


To learn more about the School of Dentistry, contact Gloria F. Callihan, J.D., associate dean of development and alumni affairs, at (804) 828-8101 or