OTTUMWA — Two things pushed Dennis Gillespie into dentistry after a short career as a high school teacher.
He was good with his hands, and he wanted to be his own boss.
After more than 40 years in Ottumwa, Gillespie retired from his practice at 1317 N. Elm St., which he’s owned since the mid-1980s. He’ll turn the business over to Dr. Sami Hopkins, a Bloomfield native and recent University of Iowa graduate.
“Being your own boss was compelling in those days,” said Gillespie, who moved to Ottumwa in 1977 after 2 1/2 years in Germany as a member the U.S. Army Dental Corps. “But there’s also been a little bit of an engineer in me. I’ve always liked to take things apart and build them again.”
Gillespie entered the dental practice under the late Burton Bickford, who flew 52 missions in World War II as a navigator. After being Bickford’s associate for two years, Gillespie took over the practice in 1980 when Bickford retired and moved to Austin, Texas, then bought his current building in 1985.
His staff was small, with just one assistant and a shared receptionist. Two years ago, he had two receptionists, two assistants and two hygienists, but has scaled back a bit.
Gillespie, who will turn 73 in a few months, also has had a thing for small towns at a time when many in his profession are looking to bigger cities to practice, or get out altogether. He was a chemistry and physics teacher in St. Ansgar in north-central Iowa, and has been a mainstay in Ottumwa.
“If you look for the bad stuff in places, you’ll find it, but if you look for the good stuff, you’ll find that as well,” he said. “Ottumwa has been very good to me and my family. All four of my kids have been quite successful. I do my best for my patients, and you just try to give back what you take out of it.”
There have been many changes to the profession, and Gillespie had to adapt. The AIDS crisis in the 1980s basically forced dentists to wear gloves, and the COVID-19 pandemic basically calls for dentists to wear respirator masks, gowns and face shields. In between was the digital age, which called for dentists to transfer their records electronically.
“I’ve tried to keep up over the years,” he said. “If you don’t gown up now, you’re subject to a fine from OSHA. So you’re kind of between a rock and a hard place, and I just decided not to renew my license.”
Gillespie retires with many accolades, namely lifetime memberships from the American Dental Association and the Iowa Dental Association. For nine years, he served as chair of the provider review committee for the Iowa Board of Dental Examiners. Locally, he was an advisory committee member for the Indian Hills Community College dental assisting and dental hygiene programs.
In retirement, well, Gillespie has already figured that out. He and his wife have traveled internationally for years, but the novel coronavirus has limited some of that.
Even without dentistry, he’ll be able to get back to what he does best — use his hands.
“I’m a woodworker and build furniture, so I’ll spend time in my shop,” he said. “But I’ll miss the people because when I was growing up, the dentist was always there for you.
“The practice has been really good for me,” he said. “I just don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery.”