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Alumni Nelson and Carlson forged a lifetime bond as dental students in the 1950s.

Drs. Paul Nelson (left) and Norman Carlson.Dr. Norman Carlson (’59) and Dr. Paul Nelson (’61) forged a friendship as dental students, and their bond has grown deeper through the years. Born just three months apart and now 91 years of age, these gentlemen were fixtures in Alabama dentistry for decades. Their impact on the school, the alumni association, the dental profession, and their communities can still be felt.

Norman Carlson’s path to become a dental student was more circuitous. His father worked for the railroad, so they moved around. He was born in Louisiana, then moved to Mississippi when he was ten years old. When he graduated from high school the family moved to Tuscaloosa, Ala. which enabled him to attend the University of Alabama. After graduating from UA, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Ala.

Paul Nelson was born in Blount County, Ala. and he grew up in nearby Cullman County. “My father was a sharecropper. We were poor. We didn’t even have running water,” he says. Coming from little means, Paul knew he needed an education to climb out of poverty. He attended Florence State Teacher’s College (now the University of North Alabama) for two years and went on to graduate from the University of Alabama. He joined the United States Air Force in 1950 during the Korean War, where he was stationed in Europe.

Both Carlson and Nelson said the GI Bill afforded them the opportunity to attend dental school. The young Carlson still had some academic work to do while he was in the army. Dr. Joseph Volker, the school’s inaugural dean, told him he would have to strengthen his biology background, which he did through correspondence courses. “The GI Bill really helped. By then I was married and our son, Terry, had been born while I was stationed at Fort McClellan. I didn’t owe a dime when I graduated. It felt good,’ says Carlson. With his wife’s job as a social worker and his part-time job at Southern Research, they were able to coble enough savings to buy a house in nearby Homewood.

By the time Paul Nelson matriculated into the School of Dentistry in the fall of 1957, Norman Carlson had already learned about the rigors of the nation’s newest dental school. Naturally Paul gravitated to Norman, who was a mentor. Little did they know they would follow similar paths and become lifelong best friends. During the first year of their friendship, Paul was taking histology and microbiology classes among other science courses. He had a solid background, having majored in biology and minored in chemistry. “I remember when I first got to the school, Dr. Volker told our class we were lucky to be (selected). He told us we probably had the lowest grade point average of any incoming class, but when we graduated, we would be some of the best dentists in the country”, he says. Nelson admits he was lucky to have Norman Carlson as a mentor and friend, because he had already learned the ropes.

As it turns out, Dr. Volker was right. When Norman Carlson graduated in 1959, he was confident he had received the best dental education possible. The faculty who taught him the finer points of dentistry were among the best in the world, many of them were recruited from Tufts University by Dean Volker. “The faculty weren’t out to be your friends, but we got as good an education as possible. I had a lot of confidence. I was well prepared to start a general practice,” says Carlson.

Because Norman had lived in Tuscaloosa, he was familiar with the area. He thought about practicing in Tuscaloosa, but there was something appealing about Northport, the small town across the river. At the time, Northport was much, much smaller and didn’t have a dentist. Soon after graduating, he opened up his Northport private practice, which he owned for fifty years. The regular lunches with his classmate, Paul, would have to wait a couple of years until Nelson himself graduated in 1961. That’s when Nelson came back to Tuscaloosa to start a general dentistry private practice. By then both men had young families to support. Little did they know at the time that both would have sons to go on and graduate from the UAB School of Dentistry. Terry Carlson graduated in 1982, and he would later go on to complete a residency in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at UAB. David Nelson earned his DMD in 1985. Not surprisingly, they both are practicing in Tuscaloosa.

David Nelson has fond memories of the two families. “Dr. Carlson was my dad’s mentor, and they were like brothers. They were almost exactly the same. Dr. Carlson could start a sentence and my dad would finish it for him,” says David with a laugh. “Our families have always been close. We went to ballgames together, vacationed together, and went to dental meetings together. I remember when we vacationed in Europe with just our dads”, he says.

Terry Carlson (‘82) was also influenced by his father and Paul Nelson. After earning his three degrees at UAB (Dentistry, Medicine, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery), he joined an Oral Surgery practice in Tuscaloosa where he remains a partner. “They have always respected each other, and have always been really good friends. They both had a great impact on the community. He (Paul Nelson) was very outgoing. He’s never had a bad day. My dad is a little more reserved, but he’s always loved and respected Dr. Nelson,” says Terry Carlson.

With burgeoning practices, both Norman Carlson and Paul Nelson were leaders in the Tuscaloosa and Northport communities. They were also leaders in organized dentistry that spanned seven decades. Norman even served as President of the School of Dentistry’s Alumni Association in 1980. “Dr. Leonard Robinson had been one of our professors in dental school. I got to know him on a more personal level when I was alumni president. He had become dean, so we attended dental society meetings (around the state),” said Carlson. While practicing dentistry, both Carlson and Nelson were seen as leaders in the community. They were active in their churches, in civic affairs, and in mentoring younger dentists throughout West Alabama and the state.

“I remember in first grade telling my teacher I wanted to be a dentist,” says the younger David Nelson. I probably would have done whatever my dad did. Growing up, it was a part of my life. I can still smell that smell of his dental office when I would go there on Saturdays. I fell in love with that smell, and I fell in love with dentistry,” he says.

When David Nelson graduated from the UAB School of Dentistry, his lifelong dream of practicing with his father came true. They practiced together for twenty plus years. “It was the best twenty years of my life,” says David. I learned about dentistry from my dad, but what I really learned was human relations and how to interact with people. He gave me the confidence to believe in myself. He taught me it is all about the patient,” he says. Added his dad, Paul, “When David came into the practice, it was so much fun to teach him. The first day he was a dentist I helped him with a patient. Until then, I didn’t have anybody to lean on. We practiced together for 23 years,” says Paul.

For Norman Carlson, his son, Terry, also picked up the dental mantle. Norman recalls the families making regular trips to the Alumni Association’s Alumni Weekend and the Hinman Dental meeting in Atlanta. He and Paul would also regularly drive to Birmingham to visit their sons while in school. “It makes you feel proud that you had an influence and for them to want to be in the profession,” says Norman.

When Paul Nelson graduated from the School of Dentistry in 1961 and moved back to Tuscaloosa, he and Norman Carlson resumed their weekly lunches. Along the way, they brought in other dentists to their lunch bunch, but those two have been the constants. Now both are retired from dentistry, but they still have their weekly luncheons. Quite often they reminisce about their dental school days. They both agree their education was not easy. In fact, sometimes they didn’t even like their professors. But, like many of the dental students who came before and after them, they bonded with each other and their classmates. Both belonged to dental fraternities, and both were married and had young families in school. Those families have grown exponentially through the years. Paul Nelson has three grown children and six grandchildren. Norman Carlson has two grown children, five grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.

For the Carlson’s, there was even a third dental school graduate in the family. John Carlson (2010), Norman’s grandson, now has his own general dentistry practice in Tuscaloosa. Says Terry, “My dad had a lot to do with John going into dentistry. After John graduated from dental school, my dad wanted to be active for another year so we could say we were all practicing at the same time,” says Carlson.

“Outside of family, the School of Dentistry was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” says Paul Nelson. Sitting across the table is his good friend Norman, who nods his head in agreement and finishes the statement. “We could not have gotten a better education.”