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Published August 11, 2010, 02:24 AM

Park Rapids graduate-turned-dentist killed on Afghanistan aid mission

The murder of a Park Rapids, Minn., graduate who left a flourishing dental practice to help people in impoverished countries has been heart wrenching for his family and the small community he attended school in.

By: Sarah Smith, Park Rapids Enterprise

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. – The murder of a Park Rapids graduate who left a flourishing dental practice to help people in impoverished countries has been heart wrenching for his family and the small community he attended school in.

“He was just a great person,” said a choked-up Tim Grams, identical twin brother of Dr. Thomas Grams, 51. “He didn’t strike you as that type of person, but he was.”

Tom was a gentle soul with a wonderful sense of humor who would come back from medical missions “with fabulous stories,” Tim said.

The brothers were 1977 graduates of Park Rapids Area High School.

Tom Grams was part of a 10-member medical team providing health care to northern Afghanistan when the group was massacred last Thursday north of Kabul. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found Friday. The families were notified over the weekend and Tim Grams notified friends via Facebook.

The boys are the sons of Paul and Irene Grams, who still live in Park Rapids. Paul Grams said he could not bring himself to discuss his son’s death.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the slayings, maintaining members killed all but one Muslim in the group sponsored by International Assistance Mission. The Taliban said the group was a ministry trying to spread Christianity.

The group was distributing toothbrushes and eyeglasses, not Christian teachings, said Tim Grams.

“Absolutely not,” Tim Grams said. “Really the only time he went with IAM was this last trip. He’d never worked with that group before.

“The other groups he worked with were totally non-religious, no religious affiliation whatsoever,” Tim Grams said.

“He was well read on his Muslim traditions and laws,” his twin said.

“He was keenly aware that in most countries it’s a capital offense to try to convert a Muslim and that’s certainly true in Afghanistan. He did not carry religious articles with him.

“He traveled to these countries – Afghanistan, India, Nepal – to give dental care, to get to know the people, to experience their culture and he respected their culture and their religion.”

In 1970 the Grams family moved to Park Rapids, where their father was the high school principal and Tom played football and track.

Tom pursued an undergraduate degree in Duluth and attended dental school in Minneapolis.

Upon graduation, Tim said Tom joined a dental practice in Colorado Springs, Colo., then eventually bought a Durango, Colo., practice and gradually took on new partners. He sold out his partnership in 2007.

But his life’s mission took hold in 2000 when an Afghani gave a presentation in Durango on torture he had endured by the Russians and Taliban over the years, Tim Grams said.

“He immigrated to the United States. After this gentleman talked to the group Tom went to the sponsor and said to send him by his office and he’d fix his teeth for free. It took a number of visits,” Tim Grams recalled.

“He (Tom) got to know more of this gentleman’s Afghani friends.”

Tom started his first overseas aid work in Nepal with Global Dental Relief, a Denver-based relief organization that sent teams of dentists to remote impoverished regions, Tom said.

He loved the work and the trips overseas cleaning teeth and performing extractions. Because of the rudimentary conditions, Tom rarely did more sophisticated procedures such as fillings, Tim said,

The brothers maintained limited ties to Park Rapids over the years.

Tim, a career military man, spent his time in the Alaska Air National Guard, where he retired. The third Grams son also lives in Alaska, where the three boys would get together to hike, canoe and revel in the outdoors.

Nature was also the reason Tom Grams was drawn to Durango, Tim said.

“He liked going into remote mountainous regions and that’s what he liked to do in his free time,” Tim said. “He did a lot of backpacking and hiking.”

But that also drew Tom to Afghanistan, where he made several trips to the Pashtun region. He became well-known there and so respected, the locals asked him when he was going to move to the region.

Tim has talked with relief organizations and hopes to finalize a ways for friends and family to send charitable donations in memory of Tom to continue his legacy.

It was a tragedy that such a giving person was taken so mercilessly, Tim said.

The Park Rapids Enterprise and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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