In the early 1970s, Dr. Harold Panuska found his calling in the realm of compassionate charity when he started setting up dental clinics which provided free services in poverty-plagued Honduras.
After eight years in that endeavor, he and several volunteers made a bigger commitment.
“Dr. Panuska and the group thought they could do things differently,” said Joe Tombers, a physician who worked with Panuska in Honduras. “So they started their own company.”
In 1982, the International Health Service was incorporated in Minnesota. For nearly 40 years, the Plymouth-based company has provided dental, medical and eye care services in Honduras. Every February, about 100 volunteers from the organization spend two weeks in remote regions of Honduras. One team returns to the region in October.
“The organization and his career are really impressive,” Tombers said. “Few have done as much as he has.”
In addition to providing patient care in Honduras, Panuska lectured at a dental school there and taught classes in several cities, including Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital. He also led efforts to ship medical and dental equipment to Honduras.
Panuska, of Bloomington, died May 29. He was 91.
Tombers, a gastroenterologist who spent a year in Honduras in the mid-1960s as a family physician, met Panuska in the 1970s.
“After my kids got older, I started volunteering in Honduras,” said Tombers, of Bloomington. “I’ve been there 21 straight years. Harold stopped working about five years ago, but he was still going there to see his friends.”
In gratitude for his work, the government of Honduras gave Panuska a certificate of appreciation, and the Honduras Red Cross presented him an award for his efforts.
In 1980, the American Dental Association (ADA) presented him a certificate in recognition of his volunteer services.
That year, Panuska told an ADA journal that he enjoyed his work in Honduras. “They are truly wonderful people and always show their gratitude for our time and efforts,” he said. “I often feel sad when I must leave Honduras. Our job never seems done.”
Panuska was born to Anna and Wolfgang Panuska on Aug. 27, 1928, in St. Paul. His family, which included two older brothers, lived in the Little Italy neighborhood along W. 7th Street.
After graduating from St. Paul Monroe High School in 1946, Panuska enlisted in the Marines, serving two years.
He began his higher education at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. After one year, he transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he earned four academic degrees. While in graduate school, he served as a clinical instructor. After graduating from the U in 1958, he went into private practice as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. While in private practice, he also served as an assistant professor at the U from 1960 to 1978 and as a guest lecturer from 1978 to 1982.
In the early 1970s, Panuska led efforts to get the 63-mile Luce Line Trail, which runs from Plymouth to Cosmos, established.
He also was a gifted cornet player, winemaker and certified wine judge.
Panuska is survived by sons Robert of Waseca, Minn.; John of Madison, Wis., and Steven of St. Michael; 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His wife of 51 years, Margaret, died in 2004.
No services are planned. In lieu of them, his family said, “Raise a glass of wine and know I had a wonderful and full life.”