Most U.S. kids aren't excited about going to the dentist. But Filipino youngsters are all smiles when "Dr. Ralph" - as he's been affectionately tagged - is on the scene.

In fact, Murray dentist Ralph Montgomery will likely receive a more hearty welcome than Santa Claus next winter when he drives a custom-built, 30-foot mobile dental clinic around the remote Philippine island of Palawan.In that sophisticated mobile dental office - equipped with a built-in dental chair and support unit, X-ray, refrigerators and medical examination table - an estimated 240,000 of Palawan's 800,000 citizens who live at the poverty level could receive care.

The idea for such a clinic was conceived by Montgomery after he had practiced on Palawan, one the least-developed and poorest provinces in the Philippines, as a Rotary Club volunteer for two 30-day time periods in 1985 and 1987.

Abroad to treat refugees in a United Nations camp, he soon discovered that the Filipinos actually had greater dental needs than did the escapees from Vietnam and Thailand.

"Each time I went there I recognized that the host country - the people receiving refugees - were in worse condition than the boat people," he said. "In the outer reaches of the island, some of the people had never even been down into the city, let alone seen a dentist. And they had no one to help them."

Montgomery vividly recalls a 32-year-old woman whose teeth were rotted to the gums. "I asked her how long she had been without a toothache," he said. "She told me that for 17 years she had been in pain."

Lack of dental care, coupled with a poor diet, has hastened tooth deterioration for the Palawans, resulting in dental conditions Montgomery terms "almost beyond belief."

He began offering free dental care to the natives after completing a full patient load each day at the refugee center. Weekends, too, were spent improving the cosmetic smiles and functional bites of the poor.

Frequently Montgomery also accompanied a medical doctor conducting a tuberculosis eradication program to the small villages. Because local radio stations heralded the doctors' visit in advance, residents gathered in hordes in the city squares. Sitting on a stool under a tree or primitive hut, Montgomery relieved human suffering.

"In most cases the only thing I could do was extract their decayed teeth to eliminate the pain they were living with on an around-the-clock basis," he said. "I pulled more teeth in a month in Palawan than I'd extracted in some 32 years in the Air Force and in private practice."

But the local philanthropist knew he alone couldn't solve the island's dental problems. "You can't empty the ocean with a thimble," he said.

As a result, the idea of the mobile van emerged - an idea supported by Rotary International, which sponsored Montgomery's previous trips to the lush, humid island.

Grants totaling $311,400 have been allocated to Montgomery by the worldwide organization. The largest portion of the funds, $270,000, is from the foundation's 3H Program (Health, Hunger and Humanity). Another $41,400 comes from separate foundation funding to cover travel expenses and a small per diem for the 18 American volunteer dentists who will assist in the Palawan project.

Both grants, coupled with $182,000 allocated by Direct Relief International, a California-based charitable group, make the clinic possible.

The van, being built in Phoenix, will be tested in Salt Lake City for a week before it's presented to the Palawan Dental Society in January.

In actual practice, the comprehensive program will work like this: The American dentists will contribute 30 days every other month on Palawan, working side-by-side with native dentists who will be trained in modern techniques and the use of X-ray equipment. The local dentists will receive additional instruction from a dental correspondent-type program developed by Loma Linda School of Dental Medicine under Montgomery's direction.

During the Americans' off-months, the participating Palawan dentists can use the clinic to treat their own patients, as long as 50 percent of their time is spent serving the poor.

The Puerto Princesa City Rotary Club will monitor the project and provide assistance in scheduling and funding after the initial three years of operation.

Montgomery's commitment as overall director is for five years.

Not unlike Santa Claus, the Murray dentist, whose personal generosity has endeared him to the Filipinos, will again return to the island this winter with some special goodies in his black bag.

Fluoride tablets, toothpaste and brushes will be distributed to the children - items foreign to the native Palawans.