7 Decades Practicing Dentistry

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image1By Krysia Gabenski, CDA Strategic Communication Specialist
From the Spring 2017 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association

Upon retirement, people tend to look back at their lives and reflect on the careers they built in that time. For Dr. Lawrence M. Willis, that time spanned almost 70 years in the field of dentistry. He experienced a lot in his career, from deciding in high school he’d pursue dentistry in college and graduating from dental school at the age of 21 to when he finally put down his loupes a few months ago at the age of 89.

Why dentistry? That decision is thanks to Dr. Willis’ mother, a principal in the St. Louis school system, who had a lot of foresight, according to Dr. Willis. When he was in high school, his mother said, “Lawrence, you ought to be a dentist.” Smart woman.

Dr. Willis started his career in dental school at the then-University of Kansas City (now the University of Missouri), following two years at Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, Mo, “back when you could go to a two-year college before dental school,” says Dr. Willis. Immediately following his graduation from dental school, Dr. Willis decided to serve his country as a member of the U.S. Air Force. His two-year stint in the military took him from his hometown of Kansas City, Mo., to Salina, Kan.; Spokane, Wash., and Anchorage, Alaska, where he put his skills to good use as a dentist for servicemembers at those towns’ air bases. His experience ranged from practicing the day-to-day aspects of dentistry to encountering the extremely humbling, when once, after another dentist backed out, he was called in to use dental records to identify the remains of fellow servicemembers who had died when two planes crashed midair during a training exercise.

After he separated from the Air Force, Dr. Willis was urged by friends to relocate from Kansas to Colorado, a move that ended up paying off. After he moved, he had been practicing dentistry in Denver for 12 years, when he found out his building was to be knocked down. The building owner waived the remaining three years on his lease, allowing him the opportunity to set up his practice at a new location in Englewood, Colo., where he’d be closer to his friends and his church. He continued to practice in Englewood until he retired, and it’s where he still calls home today.

His passion for the field of dentistry led him to his nearly 70-year career, where he adapted with the times—from being a dentist who once ran a lab in the basement of his home to one who saw the introduction of antibiotics and insurance into the dental healthcare arena. Since he graduated from dental school in 1949, the field has changed considerably. He credits the air-driven high-speed handpiece as the most helpful technological invention since he began practicing dentistry.

Now, Dr. Willis is settling into retirement, with his wife, Peggy, who put to use her Master of Education as she served a 30-year career in the Englewood school system, retiring as an assistant principal. The couple have two children, Dr. Lawrence Willis and Dr. Linda Kitaoka, who both followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming dentists, and four grandsons.

Dr. Willis treated many of his patients for his entire career. Since he retired, many of his patients have written him thank-you letters, made personal phone calls, or stopped by his house with dinner as a way to show their appreciation for his service and friendship.

After such a long career, Dr. Willis has a different answer to the question, “Why dentistry?”

“I didn’t do it for the money,” says Dr. Willis. “I enjoy people, and I had a good relationship with my patients. It was a very pleasant experience.”


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