Since the age of 5, his vision for a career has not wavered. Now, 42 years in, Philip Centonze of Baiting Hollow is retiring, happy to have lived his dream.
“I wanted to be a dentist my entire life,” said Dr. Phil, as his patients call him. “I’ve always loved science, I’ve always loved working with my hands.”
The Mattituck-based dentist has been in private practice since the late 1970s. He graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s School of Dentistry in 1978 and immediately began his dental career above an old liquor store on Main Road, thanks to a recommendation from his former dean, Dr. Mike Wolfe.
Dr. Wolfe had recommended that alumnus Dr. James Scott, who graduated in ’75, hire Dr. Phil to work in his Mattituck practice as an associate. The two worked together over several months, until Dr. Scott decided he needed time away. In 1979, he offered Dr. Phil the opportunity to take over.
“The original practice was above Winiarz Liquor Store on the Main Road,” Dr. Phil recalled, “and I practiced there for 17 years. [In 1994], I purchased a home on County Road 48, around the corner from my first office, and converted it, going through the proper channels, making it a … dental office.”
Born in Brooklyn, Dr. Phil grew up in Smithtown and attended Hauppauge High School. He then studied biology at Adelphi University, graduating with a B.A. in 1974, before moving on to earn his doctorate in dental medicine.
Mattituck, he said, like Smithtown, has a “small town, people looking out for each other, people kind of always being cordial and nice to each other” vibe.
“That’s the way I grew up, so that was the thing that attracted me back in 1978,” he said.
His early inspiration included his family’s Commack-based dentist, Dr. Melvin Shengold, who occasionally allowed him to assist.
I’m humbled when I look at the wall of charts in my office … to think that I’ve touched all those people, and helped.Philip Centonze
“His gentle ways and kindness were a great example to me and I certainly tried to follow his way of practice,” he said.
Dr. Phil’s retirement comes just months before his 68th birthday.
“I have a lot of things going on in my life,” he said. “My daughter is having our first grandchild. My other daughter’s going to be moving to North Carolina, so she needs help and, you know, after 42 years — I think it’s time for me to kind of drive off into the sunset.”
He said he couldn’t have accomplished what he has without his longtime assistants, hygienists and receptionists.
“All of these people became more than co-workers, but part of my family whom I truly love and care about,” he said. “Marie Tribuzio started with Dr. Scott as a teenage recent graduate from Farmingdale School of Dental Hygiene. Marie has been working with me and continues to work in the office today, for over 42 years now. My other hygienists, Candace Andria and Connie Mohl, each with me for over 30 years, helped make my practice, I believe, one of the best on the East End. I’ve had so many wonderful assistants … including Kate Rabkevich and Dale Elak, who continue today even after my retirement.”
He credits his patients for their loyalty, as well as his wife, Marilyn, who will retire alongside him. She spent 30 years as Dr. Phil’s office manager.
“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “I’m humbled when I look at the wall of charts in my office … to think that I’ve touched all those people, and helped.”
He said he is confident his patients and staff, who are staying on, will be left in good hands thanks to the dentists who will take over his practice.
“I only decided to retire when I found dentists who I trust [would] be as good to my patients and staff as I always tried to be,” Dr. Phil said. “I was fortunate to connect with two brothers, Dr. James Hoeg and Dr. Tom Hoeg, who, I know, with their 25 years of experience in nearby Riverhead, can continue the excellent care our patients deserve.”
Ms. Tribuzio said that knowing Dr. Phil is leaving is heartbreaking, but having the Hoeg brothers join the team makes them part of the family.
“This is new, but it’s good,” she said. “Dr. Phil did a very good job in taking care of our hearts when it came to picking these two gentlemen because [of] the nights I haven’t spent wondering what’s going to happen to me — but he did take care of us and he’ll always be my big brother.”
Outside of dentistry, Dr. Phil has been an active community member for decades, serving as a 33-year member of the Mattituck Lions Club and then as president.
“I first met Dr. Phil, I guess it was 1988. I was a patient of his,” said Dr. James Hinsch, a fellow Lion and Mattituck chiropractor. “Where I really came to know him was through the Lions Club; we worked together for probably at least the last 15, maybe 20 years at the Strawberry Festival. I can tell you that everything Phil did, he did in an excellent way. He’s a fantastic dentist. Although we’re happy for him, we’re sad to see him go.”
Dr. Hinsch said that while Dr. Phil was club president, he ran the annual Strawberry Festival back when it was held at Mattituck High School.
“He had one of the most successful festivals for its time when you consider that he was part of a club, originally, that held a one-day, six-hour festival that’s evolved into a three- or four-day event,” Dr. Hinsch said.
Given the nickname “Shecky” after comedian Shecky Greene, Dr. Phil “always had a joke at almost every meeting,” Dr. Hinsch said. “He was called upon many, many charter nights to induct the new board of directors and he did so with great humor. No one’s been able to do it quite like Phil did, so I have great affection for Phil and wish him and Marilyn nothing but the best.”
The soon-to-be retiree has also served as a board member and actor for the Riverhead Faculty and Community Theatre, a charter member of the Suffolk County Dental Society, a member of the American Dental Association and past member of the Academy of General Dentistry. He even volunteers as Shamrock Christmas Tree’s very own Santa Claus.
“He’s just a kind soul,” said Ms. Tribuzio. “To watch him play Santa Claus was the Dr. Phil I knew. That’s what he was to me.”
He admits that retiring after all these years feels strange.
“I’ve been back there finishing up a few cases and, honestly, it’s kind of weird. I do have a sense of completion, that I did what I wanted to do when I was 5 years old and I had a wonderful career doing it. I’m very accepting of the fact that it’s time for me to close the books.”