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Each year, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Dentistry graduates enter the field ready to put the knowledge and techniques learned over the previous four years to work. But for Dr. Tom Willis, who graduated from the School of Dentistry in 1977, the school provided him with much more than just dental skills.

“Dr. Carl Schuessler, a hard-nosed retired United States Air Force colonel who was a faculty member and head of the pre-clinical dentistry lab at the School when I was a student, had a tremendous influence on my perspective on dentistry as a career,” explained Tom. “He instilled in me the desire to always strive for perfection in dentistry, and to continue to learn how to do better. They call it the ‘practice of dentistry’ because you’re practicing every day!”

Tom spent most of his childhood in Somerville, Ala. When he entered the University of North Alabama in 1969, he thought he’d study math and go on to teach and coach high school baseball and basketball. But the wife of a close friend, who also happened to be Tom’s hygienist, convinced him to spend some quality time with his personal dentist, Dr. Charles Merrill (’63). After careful thought and consideration, Tom switched to double major in zoology and chemistry with a minor in military science, and set his sights on applying to dental school.

“For me, dental school was actually quite enjoyable. I had a lot of fun!” Dr. Willis recalled. “I wasn’t trying to be the best student in the class, and I wasn’t too uptight about things. I just wanted to pass. I attended dental school on a health professional scholarship through the U.S. Army, which paid for my tuition and books all four years. I was already married with my first child at the time, and we lived quite comfortably because of my scholarship.”

Dr. Willis’s scholarship obligated him to at least four years serving with the military. He completed a general practice residency at Fort Benning in Georgia in 1978, and then spent four years active duty as a General Dental Officer at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. Dr. Willis was then offered a prosthodontic residency through the army, but ultimately decided it was time to buy his own practice and settle down.

“When I lived in Birmingham for dental school, and then other cities during my military service, I always felt it was strange that people didn’t know their next door neighbors.” Tom said. “Moving to Decatur to start my career meant going back to a small town again. I got to know a lot of people quickly, and I’ve just always enjoyed this community and watching it grow.”

After more than thirty years treating patients in Decatur, Dr. Willis sold his practice to Dr. Kimberly Welden (’08) and Dr. Brian Ondocsin (’12) in 2016. But he wasn’t quite ready to hang it up for good. He continues to fill in for other dentists as needed, and remains committed to teaching future generations of dentists the importance of lifelong learning. In the weeks leading up to UAB School of Dentistry students’ board exams, he makes the trip down to Birmingham on the weekend to advise and prepare students for testing. “I love mentoring these young people; I love talking to them and connecting with them, and I always want to hear their thoughts on the profession of dentistry,” said Dr. Willis.

Tom’s participation in state and regional dentistry doesn’t stop there, though. From 2007 through 2014, he was a member of the Board of Dental Examiners of Alabama, which led him to active involvement in two regional testing agencies. He is currently serving as president for the Central Regional Dental Testing Service, and is also an examiner with the Council of Interstate Testing Agency, Inc.

When Dr. Willis steps away from dentistry, he is likely spending time with his wife, Jane, and their five children (Andrea, Nicholas, Christopher, Stacey, and Amy) and nine grandchildren. He enjoys gardening and being outdoors, and is the self-proclaimed ‘pie chef’ for his family during holiday gatherings. But he’s happy to continue traveling the country with testing agencies and grateful for the opportunity to continue mentoring young dentists.

“The profession of dentistry is an ever-evolving landscape.” Tom reiterated. “I like to tell students to approach their work with an open mind, knowing that it’s a lifelong learning experience. Just like my UAB School of Dentistry professors taught me, I like to challenge them to always be improving themselves.”

If you would like to nominate a UAB School of Dentistry alumnus to be featured in an upcoming Alumni Spotlight, please email Elizabeth Carlson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..