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By Emily Bontrager
The hustle and bustle of a big city can be alluring to many people, but there is just something about a small town that brings a community together.
Local dentist Harlo ‘Doc’ Donelson, age 90, is one of those people who loves small town communities. This is one of the reasons why he and his wife chose to settle down in Memphis, Missouri to open up a dentist office 60 years ago.
September 24, 2022 marked the 60th year anniversary of Doc Donelson practicing dentistry. All of those years were spent serving the community of Scotland County.
Harlo grew up in Palmyra, Missouri with his parents Ralph and Goldie Donelson and his two sisters Norma and Sally.
In 1950, Harlo graduated from Palmyra High School. He then attended Hannibal LaGrange College for two years on a basketball scholarship and continued his education at Central College in Fayette, Missouri for one year.
In 1953, Harlo was drafted into the United States Army and served his country from 1953 to 1955. Harlo proudly served as a Demolition Specialist in Germany in the 1st Division, also known as the ‘Big Red One.’
After returning to the states, Harlo returned to school and graduated in 1958. After graduating, Doc and his wife Joyce moved to Colorado because he wanted to work in wildlife conservation.
“When I was in school in Fayette, Professor Von in the science department asked me ‘What are you going to do?’ and I said I’m going to be a wildlife conservationist,” Doc said.
“He is the one who suggested that I use my dexterity with my drawings and with science. He really got me thinking about doing something with my hands.”
“I told my wife this and she asked if I ever thought about dentistry and I told her no I want to do wildlife conservation and be outside,” Donelson added.
After discussing it with his wife, Donelson ended up calling the professor and that phone call turned into Harlo going back to attend Kansas City University School of Dentistry where he graduated in 1962.
After he graduated, Doc started receiving telephone calls and notes from people in the Memphis area hoping that he would consider coming to Memphis and setting up a practice in town because they had been without a dentist for two years.
“We never did find out how they knew I was from Palmyra and I was in dental school because I didn’t know anybody up here,” Doc recalled.
Donelson’s plan after college was to take over the dentist office in Canton, Missouri because he had been visiting with an elderly dentist there who was ready to retire.
This was a great match for Harlo and his wife because they both wanted to live in a community that had music and sports programs, so the decision was made to stay in Canton.
“We decided we had to go by Memphis and out of courtesy tell them we are going to Canton,” Doc explained.
Harlo and Joyce went to Memphis and started visiting with a few people at some of the businesses in town. They had a nice visit and Doc told Joyce that they could not tell the people they were going to choose Canton that day, so they went back to Kansas City.
When they got back to Kansas City, they kept receiving telephone calls from people in Memphis.
“We made three trips to Memphis to say we were going to go to Canton, but thank you for all for the interest,” Doc said.
It turns out, the couple never told the people of Memphis that they were going to Canton. Instead, they decided to stay because they enjoyed the community and people in the area.
In 1962, Harlo and his wife Joyce moved to Memphis, Missouri and opened up a dentistry practice.
The first office was located a few blocks from the square in Memphis. The office had two dental chairs and Doc practiced at this location for seven or eight years.
“I then moved to the north side of the square in a building that isn’t there anymore and I had three chairs there,” he said.
The office of Dr. Harlo Donelson, DDS is located at 125 South Main Street on the west side of the square in Memphis. It opened on March 1, 1981 and has four dental chairs in the practice.
“This was a law office when I bought it. We fixed the room up the way we wanted it, and we’ve been here ever since,” Doc Donelson said.
The dentist office is open on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays during the week, but it won’t be open for much longer. Doc has decided to retire at the end of this year after serving the Scotland County community for 60 years.
“It bothers me to tell people who have been coming here for 35, 40, and even 50 years that I’m sorry I can’t clean your teeth in six months because I’m not going to be here,” Donelson said.
“We hug each other, and we cry, because over a period of time you develop a relationship with your patients.”
Doc Donelson has helped the small town of Memphis for many years, and the dentist office has become a convenience for locals to utilize.
There are many small town communities that are struggling to find replacements for health services because people want to live in bigger cities. This is a need that many communities are seeing, and this can cause families to travel farther for certain services.
Currently, Donelson does not have a replacement to take over the dentist practice. He has had no inquiries from any dentist, even though he has run ads at the local, state, and national levels.
“The guys in St. Louis that I have tried to work with tell me that nobody wants to come to a small town and that kills me. People don’t realize how small town living is the best life you can have,” Doc said.
“I love the people and the friendships I have established and working together not just in dentistry, but working together to make the community better,” Donelson said.
After retiring, Donelson plans to enjoy life and spend time listening to music and staying active in the community. Doc Donelson has served the community faithfully for many years and his dentist office will surely be missed.