September 26, 2002

Dr. Donelson Has Been Fixing Smiles In Memphis For 40 Years

Step into the office of Dr. Harlo Donelson and you won't know whether you are in a dentist office or a fine arts department. You're in both, and you are among the hundreds of patients that have been coming to Harlo for dental work for the past 40 years.

Walk into Dr. Donelson's shop and you'll find beautiful plants of all types surrounded by artwork and stained glass. The atmosphere is topped off by jazz music filtering across the speakers.

In a round and about way it was Harlo's love for the fine arts as well as athletics that brought him to Memphis back in the summer of 1962.

He grew up in Palmyra along with his wife Joyce. After graduating from the Kansas City School of Dentistry he and his wife knew they did not want to make their home in a big city. Instead they were seeking a smaller setting, preferably a college town that would offer the fine arts programs as well as plenty of sporting events to keep them busy in their free time. (Doc played junior college basketball as well as college football after competing in every sport available at Palmyra in high school so his love of athletics carried on.)

Ultimately the couple settled on Canton, home of Culver Stockton College and close enough to their roots to make everything seem perfect. However at the same time the community of Memphis began to try to recruit the young dentist.

"I don't know how the people here ever knew I existed but they found me," said Harlo. "Anyway after looking at both places we had decided on Canton."

After making their final visit to Canton, Harlo and Joyce decided to return to Kansas City via Memphis and stop to inform the folks in town that they had not chosen Memphis.

"I stopped at the grocery store and Myron Smith could not get away to talk with me but he sent me to the Ben Franklin store where there was a dozen or so people waiting to meet and greet me," Harlo recalled. "We just couldn't bring ourselves to tell them we had chosen Canton over Memphis. We made three more trips to town to tell them we had picked Canton but needless to say we never got the message delivered and here we are today."

While he's been in town for 40 years plenty has changed in the dentistry field according to Dr. Donelson.

The biggest change has been an improvement, the increase in fluoride treatment. Harlo said inclusion of fluoride treatment in public water supplies has dramatically improved dental health in Scotland County.

"We saw a big improvement when city water added the treatment and then saw another significant amount of progress when rural water made the fluoride available for pretty much the entire county."

Harlo offered an example of the improvements based on results of the annual dental screening his office has performed on elementary school students.

"That first year we did the screening there were 44.6 percent of kids that had dental problems," Doc said. "Last year that number was below seven percent and there were entire classes that had no dental decay."

While patients' dental health has improved over this time some things have not changed.

Harlo's patient list has obviously added new faces over the years but it also has maintained plenty of regular customers as well, including the first person to walk through Harlo's doors 40 years ago, Chick Downing. A business must feel blessed if after four decades the first customer ever through the doors is still coming back.

Dr. Donelson's patients can rest assured that despite reaching this milestone Harlo has no intentions of retiring.

"As long as I feel good I'm going to keep showing up for work," he said. "I think I can still serve the public and provide folks with the quality dental service that they deserve. Besides I would miss being around people an awful lot."

That's good news for the customers, which come through the doors at an average of more than 20 patients per day.

With that much business it is amazing that Dr. Donelson finds time to be a part of so many of the community activities that he loves.

At the top of the hobby list has been the Memphis Community Players that he helped create along with two former SCR-I music instructors back in 1975.

"We wanted to offer kids an opportunity to continue to enjoy music and fine arts well beyond their school days," he said. "Unlike sports, music and acting can be done by young and old alike. But most importantly we really just wanted to do something that might bring a smile to someone's face and to help the community have a little fun."

With Rotary, Economic Development, the Community Players, Theatre and the 101 other things Harlo helps with it's amazing he has the energy to find his way to work. But it used to be even worse as his office has eliminated some of the workload.

"I used to make all my own dentures and wax and cast all the gold work right here in the shop," he said. "Back when I was doing that I would be here just about every night 'til midnight."

Since then much of that work has been contracted out of the office freeing up Harlo to do more of the things this community has grown to know him for.

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