MONTAGUE – After nearly 50 years working at the dental practice located at 8670 Ferry Street in Montague, Diane Balkema is a mainstay for the dentists, patients and staff there.
She will be retiring from her position effective Dec. 23, and Dr. Joseph Ferguson, DDS, who has worked with Balkema for the last 36 years, reports, “She has been just extraordinary. I feel sad that she’s retiring. It will be like part of the family (is) gone.”
Maya Rademaker has shared the front desk with Balkema for the last five and a half years. She says people tell her she’s just like Diane, and she takes that as a real compliment.
According to Rademaker, “Patients look for her when they come in. She’s just super sweet and always kind. If you need to go to someone you go to Diane. It’s been great working with her. She’s a true asset to this office.”
Balkema started with the practice under Dr. Spencer Weersing on March 16, 1971. She was 16 years old and was on Co-op at Montague High School, so she came into the office at 3:30 after school and initially worked cleaning the office until the end of the workday.
After two months, Dr. Weersing started training her as his dental assistant and in her senior year of high school, she went to her classes until 11:00 and then worked 1:30-5:30 in her new position. After graduation she moved right into a full-time position, taking some classes at Ferris State to bolster her skills in taking X-rays.
After taking some time off to have two children in 1977 and 1979, she served as Dr. Weersing’s assistant for another year and then he asked her to work at the front desk, doing reception/check-in, bookkeeping and accounts receivable, billing, insurance and payroll.
“I wasn’t excited about the change to front desk at first. I wasn’t sure I could do it, especially taking money from people I knew – my friends and family. But Dr. Weersing always said, ‘Pretend there is a mirror in front of you and always smile – people can tell if you’re not smiling or if you’re having a bad day or experiencing any frustrations. The patient always comes first.”
That advice has worked for her throughout her career.
Balkema has watched the practice grow since she first started.
“We’re very busy,” she notes. “It is now a practice of three dental hygienists, three employees at the front desk and three dentists, including Dr. Joe Ferguson and his two sons Michael and Matthew.
“Patients love us because we are such a friendly, accommodating office. It’s amazing how far our patients travel because they love us here.”
She relates that patients come from as far away as Portland and Holland and from all over Muskegon, Oceana and Mason counties.
Looking back, she recalls the changes over the years. At the beginning, very few patients had dental insurance, and the front desk had a rolodex with account cards and did their calculating on an adding machine. Now they help patients by checking out their insurance for them, and can do most of their tasks with a push of a couple of buttons.
“Technology made us be able to be so big – we can keep up,” she explains.
With such a long history with the practice, Balkema says, “Many patients I don’t want to say goodbye to. Some have been here as long as I have been. We see their children and grandchildren now. Also, I’ve worked with some great women and two wonderful doctors (Dr. Weersing and Dr. Joseph Ferguson) over the years – and now two more (Drs. Michael and Matthew Ferguson).
“I’ve been like the mother of the office. I’ve really developed some great friendships. I will miss all the wonderful people and friendships I’ve made over the 50 years.”
As she contemplates her retirement and is training her replacements, Balkema shares her immediate and longer-term plans. Her husband Martin is already retired and they hope to do some traveling and playing golf, which they love.
In February and March, if COVID-19 allows, they would like to spend some time with their children and grandchildren in North Carolina. Their son Marty has a software company and spends six months in Ludington and six months in North Carolina, and their daughter is also in North Carolina.
So, Diane and Marty bought a van with stowaway seats and plan to pack up their two dogs and head south. They would like to travel out West as well, since they have never been to Oregon and other Western states, and they hope to return to St. Croix Virgin Islands, where they have enjoyed visiting and golfing in the past.
“We haven’t made a bucket list of places to go yet,” she indicates, but it’s clear that they intend to enjoy their retirement years.
Retirement will be bittersweet for everyone involved.
As Balkema observes, “I’ve known Dr. Mike and Matt (Ferguson) since they were born. Dr. Joe and Patti and the staff have been like family to me.”
To this comment, Dr. Joe adds, “We had the same staff for my first 30 years of working. I’ve worked with a number of people over the years and they’ve slowly retired. Diane is the last and it will be a sad day. We have become a tight-knit group. She is so good with the staff and the patients. She knows everyone and the area and it’s hard to replace that. Our new folks have worked out well, but she has been a great asset to this organization and a great friend over the years.”
“Because of COVID restrictions, celebrations of Balkema’s retirement may have to be postponed until a later time. When this is possible, notice will be given. In the meantime, however, the Fergusons encourage patients and friends to come into the office to say good-bye to Diane during the month of December, through the 22nd.
“She will be working Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and would love to see those she has known for so many years.”