Former Middlebury dentist returns to county

BRISTOL — There’s a new dentist in Addison County; or more accurately, an old dentist.
Many residents remember the dental practice Dr. Jim Cossaart owned in Middlebury from 2000 to 2008. After returning to his native Kansas for six years, Cossaart and his wife, Deb, returned to Vermont this summer and last month opened up a new practice in Bristol.
The Cossaarts opened the new office, Bristol Park Dental, at the beginning of October. Jim Cossaart said it’s nice to be back in Vermont.
“People have been absolutely good to us,” he said. “Very welcoming and very sweet.”
While many Addison County residents may be glad Cossaart is back, they likely don’t know the fascinating story of how (and when) Cossaart became a dentist in the first place.
For the first 42 years of his life, Cossaart wasn’t in the tooth business. He was a rancher, living on 384 acres of Kansas prairie his family settled five generations ago.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Kansas State University, Cossaart returned to the family business of raising grass-fed cattle, an occupation he cherished for 20 years.
Yet he always wanted his work to involve health care, and he queried his local dentist about the profession every time he went in for a checkup.
“There was a small town dentist near our farm and he would explain things,” Cossaart said. “One day I just kidded him and said ‘I think I could do your job,’ and he said, very seriously, ‘I agree.’”
Cossaart didn’t pursue the idea of getting into dentistry until he had an epiphany one day in the dead of winter. The story is best told by him:
“I was about 30 feet in the air and it was below zero and the wind was blowing and I was fixing this windmill with my bare hands and thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way,’” Cossaart recounted. “So the next morning I called the dental school to ask them what it would take to get in.”
The school told him everything he needed to do to be admitted. One major hurdle presented itself right away — he hadn’t cracked a textbook in two decades.
“I need a year’s worth of prerequisites,” Cossaart said. “All of a sudden I had to learn physics, organic chemistry and human anatomy.”
There were other reasons for his decision to pursue a second career. He recalled difficult economic times for ranchers in the Midwest during the late 1980s and 1990s. Cossaart said he didn’t want his son to have no choice but to be a rancher.
“I thought, ‘This can’t go on for another generation,’” Cossaart said.
He put ranching on hold and hired a tutor to help him get through the classes. He needed to get straight A’s, he said, because admission to dental school is incredibly competitive.
But his efforts paid off, and he was accepted to dental school in Nebraska. At 37, he was the oldest student in his class.
Five years later, he finished his studies and decided to find work in Vermont, 1,500 miles to the east. It’s not uncommon for dentists from the Midwest to relocate to Vermont, Cossaart said.
“Vermont doesn’t have its own dental school, so it has to import all the dentists from different states,” he explained.
Cossaart said he was also likely a better fit for Vermont than his younger classmates.
“All these kids coming out of school are big city people, because that’s where everyone lives,” he said. “Being a rural person, I just fit right in here.”
Though he’s since hung up his saddle, Cossaart still looks the part of a rancher. In his office this past Thursday afternoon the soft-spoken dentist could be found in blue jeans, boots and a tucked-in shirt.
Cossaart ran a successful practice in Middlebury for eight years. He also had the good fortune of meeting his wife in town, in 2002.
In 2008, Cossaart decided to return to Kansas to be closer to his son as he grew up. He and Deb sold the Middlebury practice and moved west, opening a practice in Hebron, Neb., just across the state line from their home. It flourished and the couple were happy, and also took the time to make repairs to the ranch and get back into farming.
“Between that and raising cattle we had a good time, but we like Vermont and always wanted to come back,” Cossaart said.
They weren’t looking to settle in Bristol, but were taken by the small town after a visit to the Bobcat Café on vacation.
“We thought Middlebury would be a little too big,” Cossaart said. “We thought Bristol would be quieter and more peaceful, more like the town we were in.”
The Cossaarts came back to Vermont in July and decided to open a practice in an old house on Park Place, near the Baptist church.
After doing some renovations to make the joint look more like a dental practice, the couple opened Bristol Park last month. Deb Cossaart serves as the chief financial officer, and the business has three other employees.
Right now, the practice is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and is accepting new patients. Cossaart said he’s not focused on loading his schedule to increase his billing, but rather personalize the care he provides to patients.
“We like to spend individual time with each patient, and just pay attention to people,” Cossaart said. “We always thought if you treat people right and pay attention to them, you’ll have plenty of work.”
The fact that Dr. Patrick Rowe opened up another dental practice in Bristol, Red Clover Dentistry, earlier this year, doesn’t bother Cossaart. He said he views Rowe as more of a colleague than competition.
“There’s a lot of teeth out there, and he’s a good guy,” Cossaart said. “We cover for each other in emergencies, so there’s a real spirit of cooperation there.”
Cossaart, now 58, admits that leaving his livelihood and going back to school was a gamble — he won’t pay off his dental school loans until he’s 76 — but one that has paid off. Deb Cossaart said she and her husband look to retire in about 10 years, and are happy to finish their careers in picturesque Vermont.
“This is a great place,” she said.

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