Smiles and legacy — that’s what 50 years of Molen Orthodontics means to founder Bruce Molen and his sons, Rick and Aaron.
The three, along with partner Chris Eitzen, commemorated five decades of not just straightening teeth and re-aligning jaws, but also community service, with a celebration last Friday, March 18. The shindig, hosted at the Sumner office, brought together what all four would likely consider members of their extended family, whether they were one of Bruce’s first patients or just started being treated by the “younger” generation of doctors.
Although the party celebrated when the first Molen office opened in March 1972, Bruce’s history with orthodontics starts several years earlier as part of the first-ever class to graduate from the UCLA School of Dentistry in 1968.
This was a far cry from the zoology bachelors degree he earned at Brigham Young University.
After graduating with his doctoral, Bruce joined the Air Force to take care of his fellow service men and women’s teeth. According to him, he told his superiors he wanted to do this in the northwest — apparently, to them, that meant South Dakota.
Bruce worked at Ellsworth Air Force Base for two years before he relocated to Washington to attend UW, became an orthodontist, and followed his dentist brother (who served in the Army) to Auburn, where they operated out of the same building for a few years.
His brother, tired of the rain, eventually moved to Kennewick — Bruce, however, stayed, and “it was the best decision I ever made,” he said.
Over the next 50 years, Bruce watched the orthodontics industry evolve, sometimes at a breakneck pace, and he had to work hard (and travel far) to stay on top of the latest techniques and the most up-to-date technology.
When he first started practice, “the braces went all the way around the tooth,” he said, and he’d often have to give his patients headgear, “that device that comes out of your mouth and wraps around the back of your neck.”
Now, he watches his sons and Chris work with “frictionless braces” and “memory wire” that adjust teeth far more quickly, with far less pain, and ever before. (He’s also glad to have seen the end of “antiquated” headgear, at least in his practice.)
But while Bruce loves his career — “Orthodontics is like having a hobby, and people pay you to do your hobby,” he said — he loves being able to serve his community through his work even more.
“I was trying to create the best smiles possible, and I think over the years, we were able to achieve that,” Bruce said. “The smiles that we create are, I think, superior to what you see generally coming out of orthodontics offices.”
Rick and Aaron said this was apparent when they were attending Auburn High.
“I knew… [which] kids that were being treated by my dad because you could just tell,” Rick said. “It became known as a Molen smile around town, and it still is, to this day.”
Some teenagers may feel strange to have a parent that was so prominent in the local public eye, but Aaron and Rick said they enjoyed it, because everyone who went to see their father came away with a positive experience.
“But with that comes expectations, which were good,” Aaron continued. “I’m happy to say all of us kids represented his name in the community.”
Then came the time for Rick and Aaron to go to college and figure out what they wanted to do, and who they wanted to become. Rick said he looked at being a sports broadcasting.
But “I started thinking about what kind of life (being a sportscaster) would… be, as far as having to move all over the place and hopping from job to job and being unstable,” Rick said. “I… thought long and hard about what my dad does, and how he always had a stable life and family life, and a stable income… suddenly a lightbulb went off in my head, and I said, ‘Why don’t I be an orthodontist?’”
Aaron, who wanted to be a marine biologist, had a similar journey.
“I looked back at my dad’s career, and I recognized that I never saw him come home and complain about his job. I never saw him had a cross word. Any time we were out in public, and he ran into a patient, he was happy to see them and they were ecstatic to see him… I want[ed] that, too,” he said.
Both decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and attended UCLA; Rick was certified as an orthodontist in 2001, and Aaron in 2008. Chris attended the same orthodontics program with Rick, and was certified in 2002.
By then, Molen had opened up two additional offices — Enumclaw’s in 1982, and Sumner’s in 1997 – which meant his practice was large enough for his sons to join him, something both Rick and Aaron say is unusual. (Chris, instead, went to California to practice, but moved up to Washington to work with the Molens in 2016)
And what’s also unusual, they added, was that they all live where they practice; Aaron and his dad like in Lakeland Hills, an Auburn neighborhood, while Rick is in Buckley and Chris, Tehaleh, near Bonney Lake.
“This is our community. These are our towns. These are our people. And I think that connection, you can’t fake it,” Aaron said. “It’s very real.”
And because all of Molen’s orthodontics are a part of the community they work in, they feel strongly about being giving back to the community that’s supported them all these years.
Long before his sons joined his practice, Bruce had a habit of performing pro bono work for kids whose families wouldn’t normally be able to afford it.
“If the treatment went twice as long as anticipated, and we were losing money in the end, it was never a consideration,” he said. “It was never about the profits. It was always about the smile.”
One of those patients, Bruce continued, went on to be the poster child of Molen, appearing on all of their ads and literature.
Back then, Bruce would pick and choose who received free services on his own. Now, Molen has made the process more official through their Spark A Smile Foundation, where a board of directors sift through applications of local children who are willing to perform community service work in exchange for free orthodontic work.
Bruce also supported local high school seniors by awarding $500 scholarships. He started by just granting those scholarships to students at just a few schools, but Aaron said Molen now supports seniors at nearly 10 high schools around the area.
He estimates that, over the 20 or 30 years Molen has done this, more than $100,000 in scholarships have been awarded.
Molen also hosts an annual Candy Buy-Back after every Halloween (this year, a ton of candy was collected, as well an 700 cans of food for local food banks), supports local parks and rec programs, and even sponsors the Enumclaw Rotary’s annual Father Daughter dance, which is this weekend.
“In the end, we don’t exist if the community doesn’t trust us and support us,” Aaron said. “Therefore, if they support us and bless us, then we want to support and bless them back.”
Bruce, Rick, and Aaron are looking forward to what the future has in store for them.
Bruce hasn’t been able to practice orthodontics in a while now — he’s been recovering from a bone cancer.
“A year ago, I couldn’t even get up,” he said. “Now I’m back walking and making plans to go to Europe this summer.”
Rick and Aaron are looking to continue the practice the way their father has.
“Our main focus is to do the highest quality work, because that’s our reputation, and we don’t want to take any steps or expand beyond what we can do,” Aaron said. “We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin or overdo it. We’re always at looking for opportunities for growth, but it seems just focusing on our core… is our comfort zone right now.”
And, of course, the two fathers are looking forward to seeing if their own kids will want to take up the Molen mantle.
“My 11 and 9 year old both insist they’re going to someday be the owner of Molen Orthodontics,” Rick said. “They both have, at least at that very young age, that desire.”