For as long as he can remember, Ira Novsam has enjoyed working with his hands.

During summers at a South Shore bungalow, he painted seashells and sold them on the corner. He grew up in Washington Heights, and graduated from Bronx Science and City College as a biology major.

Novsam went on to NYU's dental school. His reasoning: "Dentistry would allow me to be creative with my hands. But unlike surgery, I could have a life."

Then came Beth Israel Hospital. "If I don't get out of New York now, I never will," he thought to himself. A dentist in Stamford was looking to hire someone younger. Novsam worked there for six months, but grew disillusioned when the older man made real estate deals while simultaneously working on patients.

Over 40 years ago, Novsam heard about a Westport dentist looking to hire someone. They met for lunch at Oscar's. Walking down Main Street, "I realized this was a real community. Everyone said hi to Ted," Novsam said. The dentist was Dr. Theodore Gluckman.

"Ted was a gentle, kind man," Novsam said. "He had a way of responding to people. He took care of them in many ways."

Watching Gluckman work, Novsam understood that addressing all areas of a patient's needs was an important part of dentistry.

"I realized that was a part of me, too, even if I hadn't known it about myself yet," he said.

For more than four decades, Novsam has practiced dentistry -- with regard for the whole patient -- on the corner of Main Street and Kings Highway North. He became the senior partner when Gluckman retired in 1997, and hired Steven Regenstein to continue the two-man office.

The most important change Novsam has seen in dentistry is prevention.

"Kids are becoming adults with no fillings, or just one or two small ones," he said. "We've taught people how to brush and floss properly."

Fluoridation helps, too.

As this generation grows up, they won't need crowns or root canals.

"It's a wonderful change in dental health," Novsam said.

But it means tougher times for dentists.

He deplores one unintended result: the pressure on dentists to increase sales of "unnecessary things." Full disclosure: I've seen Novsam's resistance. He's my dentist, and when I recently asked about whitening procedures, he explained the range of options. But he steered me away from $700 bleaching. I spent $75, and my teeth look fine.

"I hope I've been true to myself," Novsam said. "I've learned that taking care of people in an honest and good way is the most rewarding part of this area of my life."

He has indeed been true to himself. That's one reason his staff has stayed so long. Dental hygienist Maureen Kelly started with Gluckman two years before Novsam; she's still there. Assistant Patty Turner has been with the practice for 22 years.

"We're a family," Novsam said with satisfaction. "We all take care of each other."

Novsam is also proud that so many of Westport's "old guard" remain his patients.

"Seeing people appreciate what happens in this office, and know how much we care, makes me feel good," he said. "I'm grateful those feelings are available to me."

As he looks back on "tens of thousands" of patients, it's not the dentistry that stands out. "That part is predictable," Novsam said. "We have an idea what we want to do, and why, and what the result will be."

Far more meaningful are personal relationships.

"The old liberals in this town made it what it was," he said. "The intellectuals, the artists -- those are the ones I think of a lot."

At the end of May -- after 42 years as a dentist -- Novsam will retire. His wife, Betsy Cohan, a native Westporter, has already retired from a career in advertising. Novsam feels quite secure turning the practice over to his friend and partner, Regenstein.

"I'm turning 69," Novsam said. "There are things I want to have the time to do."

He loves gardening, boating, fishing and traveling. There are places to go, and activities to enjoy. The Y's Men and Wildlife in Crisis -- he's been a vegetarian for 36 years -- are two organizations he looks forward to working with.

Novsam began thinking about retiring this winter. At first, he said, the idea was difficult, even frightening.

"I define myself as `a dentist.' That's a big part of my self-image," he said. "Taking that away was scary. But over a few months, I realized I could have a life. I saw I could substitute other things for that. Now, I'm looking very forward to it."

But until he packs up his drill, he remains a dentist. Every day brings thank-you cards and visits from current and former patients.

"Hearing how important I've been to them is unbelievable," Novsam said. "Then we hug and cry together."

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com.