Meet Edward Zuckerberg, tech-savvy dentist (and Mark's father)

Edward Zuckerberg pulls his iPhone out of his jeans pocket and hits the familiar blue Facebook icon.

He's eager to show off his latest effort to market his suburban dental practice. The man known as "Painless Dr. Z" is offering a free teeth bleaching kit to the first 10 patients who use their smartphones to tell their Facebook friends that they've stopped by his office.

On the receptionist's desk, a blue sticker exhorts clients to "'Like' us on Facebook." The effort has paid off. The dental practice has more than 1,100 fans.

"It broadcasts to all their friends that they patronize this business," he said. "I hate to use the word 'sales' in my profession, but we are salesmen."

There's an easy explanation for the 56-year-old's familiarity with social networking. This bald, bearded dentist is father to that other Zuckerberg, Mark, the curly-haired founder of Facebook who grew up above the basement office.

But this isn't the story of the kid genius helping Pop set up a profile. Long before Mark became a billionaire and the subject of the Academy Award-winning biopic "The Social Network," his father was embracing a digital future from the confines of his small business.

The elder Zuckerberg's first office computer — an IBM XT with a hard drive whose capacity was one twenty-five-thousandth of the standard today — was purchased in 1984, the year Mark was born.

He gave his son his first lessons in programming on the family's Atari 800, which looked like a big electronic typewriter. And he made sure each of his four children had a computer.

"A key word here is 'vision,'" the dentist said with a terse bravado that could have been lifted from Aaron Sorkin's screenplay. "We're all exposed to a lot of things, but how many can see where things are heading?"

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At first glance, the office of Edward Zuckerberg, DDS, doesn't look like a crucible of innovation.

Tucked into a modest, gray-paneled house in Dobbs Ferry, 45 minutes north of New York City, it has low, tiled ceilings. Soft rock and local traffic reports drone through the hallways. A plaque on a light blue wall reads: "Be true to your teeth or they will be false to you."

But in the three examination rooms, patients can watch Internet-streamed television on flat-screen monitors or soothe themselves with music on one of the office iPods. Those needing dental implants don't have to wait long. Zuckerberg has the equipment to scan a broken tooth and fabricate a replacement in just a few minutes.

"Part of my shtick, if you would call it here, is that I am a technology guy," says Zuckerberg, a stout, slow-moving man with a penetrating gaze.

Rosa Cavalluzzi, his longtime assistant, should know. She ticked off some of the advances she had seen during her 23 years at the office: panoramic X-ray machines and scanners for making electronic copies of incoming mail to satisfy Zuckerberg's quest for a paperless office.

She had to hand over her scheduling book to Zuckerberg when appointments were computerized. "I cried," she said, only half in jest.

"I brought her out of the dinosaur age," Zuckerberg said. "You can't be part of the scene here and not be up to snuff."

Zuckerberg's wife, Karen, was part of the scene, helping out in the office downstairs and raising the kids upstairs until she gave up the office work a few years ago. The practice now has seven employees, including two other dentists, and about 3,000 patients.

Like his son, Zuckerberg is an evangelist for social media, albeit on a smaller stage. In February he spoke to a crowded room of dental students at Columbia University about "Technology Integration in the Dental Office."

Tom Connolly, a Columbia faculty member, attended in hopes of improving his own dental practice. Zuckerberg's lecture on digitizing his office, delivering appointment reminders by email and marketing with Facebook sent Connolly away buzzing with ideas.

"The fact that I've always looked toward being cutting edge, and the fact that he was seven to 10 years ahead of me, I was really impressed with that," Connolly said.

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Zuckerberg said his father was a mail carrier in Brooklyn whose "method of fixing a TV that went out of whack was to take a fist and pop it." But the future dentist was the kind of teenager who dismantled stereos just to see how they worked. A dental school classmate turned him on to computers.

The first one in his office was a massive IBM machine that cost $10,000 and could do little more than print out invoices. "It wasn't about the math; it was about the vision," Zuckerberg said.

Another of his early computers came with a programming tutorial disk. Zuckerberg taught young Mark to write code. "He was bored with his schoolwork," the elder Zuckerberg explained. He later let the boy rig up a primitive version of instant messaging that enabled people in different parts of the dental office and the house to communicate via computer. The family dubbed it ZuckNet.

"It was buggy and it crashed, but it worked for about a year until we got networked," Edward said.

Mark is not the only child to share his father's passion. The youngest Zuckerberg daughter, Arielle, is a senior at Claremont McKenna College studying computer science; she designed the office's website. The oldest daughter, Randi, works with Mark at Facebook as the head of marketing. The middle daughter, Donna, a doctoral student in classics, is married to a computer whiz. That son-in-law, Harry Schmidt, has supplemented his graduate school income by designing an iPhone app for translating Latin.

It is Schmidt, not Mark, whom dentist Zuckerberg calls when he needs IT help.

"Mark was never a repair kind of guy," Zuckerberg said. "Harry can do lots of stuff that Mark can't."

It's easy to see where Mark inherited the cool dispassion for which he is known. The elder Zuckerberg talks about Facebook more from the perspective of a calculating businessman than a proud parent.

"It's a tremendous marketing tool for business. It certainly is the biggest bang for your marketing buck," he said.

Still, he's keeping his options open. Zuckerberg said he had tried competing sites, including Foursquare, and found them inferior to Facebook — so far.

"If Foursquare were a better product?" he pondered for a second. "I've never been faced with that problem, but I guess it would be a dilemma for me."

Zuckerberg has mostly ignored people who post comments about his son on the dental office Facebook wall. In person, he grows visibly uncomfortable when asked about him. (Mark was equally reticent and would not comment about his father.)

"If I wanted to put a poster of my son on the cover of Time magazine somewhere in the waiting room, I guess I could, but I just choose not to," he said flatly.

Zuckerberg's restraint may be due in part to the backfiring of a recent effort to capitalize on his son's fame. In a marketing letter sent to prospective patients this year, Zuckerberg declared, "I am literally the Father of Facebook!"

The backlash was immediate. Time magazine, which named Mark Zuckerberg its 2010 Person of the Year, mocked his dad in its online edition, comparing the ham-handed marketing plug to "one of those hilarious e-mails with wild claims of being the deposed king of Nigeria who just needs a little money to get back on his feet."

Though Zuckerberg talks little of his famous offspring, he is quick to defend him. He takes particular offense at director David Fincher's portrayal of his son as a back-stabbing, arrogant, socially inept savant in "The Social Network." The movie, Zuckerberg said, was "inaccurate" and "disturbing."

Like his son — who is known for wearing T-shirts and driving an aging Acura — Zuckerberg has tenaciously clung to the same life he had before Facebook garnered half a billion users and converted "friend" into a verb.

He still works a full schedule. When he needs a computer, he often uses a communal office machine perched on a cramped desk alongside a photo of Cavalluzzi's son and a pink-and-white guinea pig Beanie Baby.

The biggest change in his life, he said, is the amount of time he has to spend deflecting questions from patients about Mark and his company.

"I guess I've lost some of my identity. I've always been the dentist, and now I'm the father of the Facebook guy," Zuckerberg said, just a bit ruefully. But then he perked up: "You know, I'm still the dentist."

nathaniel.popper@latimes.com

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