Dr. Frank Patterson has always tried to stay aware of changes in dental care during the last half century, but it was a young patient who once caught him off guard.
“A lot of times I wear Converse (athletic shoes) to work, and I didn’t even know they were called Chuck Taylors,” he said during an interview recently. “So I’ve got four or five pair of those, and I walked in and a girl said, ‘Oh, I like your Chucks!’ I’d never called them Chucks, and had to go look it up. I didn’t know Chuck Taylor was a basketball player!”
Patterson, who last month reached his 50th year of practicing dentistry, confesses he likes to “have fun with patients” in a medical profession that often is associated with pain and has served as the target of many jokes and cartoons.
“I think the staff pick up on that,” he said. “It’s loose and casual, we’re friendly with patients and we also try to do right with patients. We bend over backwards numerous times to get things right. Some things patients go through may not be the most comfortable, but if we can somehow keep a sense of humor while we’re sticking to it to get it right, I think they appreciate that.
“I think that’s one reason we’ve done so well.”
Patterson, 75, is the third dentist in his family line. His grandfather, Tully Uriah Smith, began practicing the dental arts in 1907 in Covington.
“My grandfather’s daddy knew Smith was a common name, and he gave his seven children — Tully Uriah being one of them — these what we would look at now as awful names,” he shared. “One of his children was my mother. Her name was also Tullie, but with an i-e. Tullie married my daddy (Frank) who was from Shady Dale, a tiny place about 20 miles from Covington.”
His parents met on a golf course.
“Covington’s not big and most people probably knew each other,” he said of another era. “I think Daddy was finishing a round of golf on some golf course that had sand greens, and she saw him and told her sister she was going to marry him.”
Frank Patterson Sr. started a dental practice in Dalton in 1937 and worked into his early 70s.
“Everybody remembers him as just being easygoing, so kind and chairman of the board of deacons at First Baptist, chairman of the health department (board),” he recalled. “I don’t try to compare myself to him, but I think he would be proud of a lot of things I’ve done, not only in dentistry but in woodworking, one of my hobbies. He did some really, really nice woodworking projects too — a couple I would not even begin to try, musical instruments like a clavichord and a harpsichord. They are fabulous looking … I have music in me, but I don’t play anything.”
Patterson Jr. said he didn’t know if his father became a dentist because of the influence of his mother’s father Tully. One of his own daughters is named Tullie, who is an attorney, and the other is Currie, a dermatologist. He has five grandchildren.
Patterson Jr. graduated from Dalton High School in the class of 1965, and initially was unsure he would follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I had an English teacher in the 11th grade who gave us an assignment to write about what you want to do when you grow up,” he remembered. “Up until that point, I did not want to be a dentist. But I got to thinking about it, and thought maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing — perhaps I was getting more mature by then. So from 11th grade on, I wanted to be a dentist. That’s why I got through Emory in three years, I was pretty loaded up on science. But political science was kinda fun, too.”
After graduating from dental school at Emory, he worked with his father beginning in June 1972. By September, they moved to the current office on Cleo Way that had been under construction, but each kept a separate practice. However, they were able to “cover” for each other in seeing patients when one had to be away. Later, because he’d neglected liberal arts classes in lieu of science courses, he monitored evening classes at Dalton Junior College to learn more.
Patterson Jr. bought Patterson Sr.’s side of the practice in the mid-1980s. He was asked how he built his practice through the years.
“Through a lot of friends from First Presbyterian Church and their children, my children and their little friends and parents — that’s a time when people are looking for a dentist for their kids and maybe themselves — and I joined the (Dalton) country club, and social kinds of things,” he said. Later, he joined the Rotary Club and worked out at Bradley Wellness Center.
“I wasn’t doing these things to be visible on purpose, I was just doing that anyway,” he explained. “But here I am, 50 years in (practice), and I’m still attracting patients. I don’t know how people sit home and do nothing.”
Staying home certainly doesn’t describe Frank Patterson. On Monday, he will run his 38th consecutive Peachtree Road Race — 42nd overall — a perennial Atlanta 10k footrace on the Fourth of July that draws tens of thousands of runners.
“It’s an illness now, it’s like I can’t miss!” he said with a laugh.
A recent health scare hasn’t sidelined him. While running last year he experienced a muscle tear and fall while he was still six-tenths of a mile from home.
“I drug my leg to get back home, and called a running friend who works with AOSM (Associates in Orthopedic & Sports Medicine, in Dalton) and said I’ve got something bad (happen) and she said come in at 9,” he recalled. “I had one patient I had to see here, and she was from out of town, and I could barely walk. They did the surgery three days later — the injury was on the first of February — and 20 weeks of therapy and wearing a brace (followed). So I figured it up, that’s five months, right before the start of the Peachtree Road Race. I did some short runs and probably shouldn’t have, but that was the first I’d really run, in Peachtree last year.
“Right now, I am at 100%. I’ve been really, really lucky with health. I’m fortunate, and I try to be humbly thankful every day.”
Mountain climbing has been an adventure sport with Patterson — he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and had to cancel the legendary Mount Blanc in Europe because of rock slides. He’s also scaled some of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. An effort to climb Mount Rainier also was tried but his entire party couldn’t complete the attempt.
Earlier this year, Patterson hiked in the Galapagos Islands and the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.
“That was two-and-a-half weeks, and it was strenuous,” he related. “I was snorkeling twice a day or hiking twice a day on volcanoes. In Peru, you fly in to Cuzco, which is 11,200 feet (in altitude) and you’re just about gasping for breath. Then to go to Machu Picchu, that’s a couple thousand feet (lower) which is a little bit of a relief. The mountains there are like something out of a sci-fi movie … with terraces and cities built on their sides.”
‘Make me look really good’
A former patient, Dr. Weston Hughes, attained his doctor of dental science degree and was hired four years ago. Eighteen months ago he bought the practice and now it’s known as Patterson & Hughes Family Dentistry. The staff has remained loyal; in fact, five of them have worked there for more than 30 years.
“I kid with them that I hire them and can’t get rid of them!” Patterson chuckled. “I do try to give them autonomy. I will delegate to the edge of the law, what the law allows, that’s what they will be doing. You have to train them to do that, and they’ve trained with me … they’ve seen me do so many things, talk to so many patients about different kinds of things. When we get a new patient in with some kind of problem, they’ll talk to the patient and come back and tell me (what’s going on with them). They make me look really good and they make my life so easy.”
The staff has also kept up with trends that make visiting the dentist easier.
“The front desk — Pam (Parker) and Susan (Lock) — I wouldn’t begin to try to do what they do.,” he said. “Back on the clinical side, they see what I’m doing and if we start new kinds of things, they’re totally into changing … Dr. Hughes, since he’s been here, has changed some things to newer ways and (the staff) are totally up on it. If a salesman comes in, I don’t have to talk to them. If the lab calls, Brenda (Clarey) and Sonya (Etheridge) know what I want.”
Asked if there have been any dramatic incidents during his 50 years of practice, Patterson replied that they haven’t had any medical emergencies such as heart attacks, but “all the staff is trained in CPR, almost every year these days.”
One of his favorite humorous stories is about the boy who “didn’t get a shot.”
“Kids can be a little antsy about getting shots,” he said from experience. “I’m not bragging, but we can give an injection on a kid and they probably won’t even know it. The mother’s waiting out there, the little child’s in the back, and then when the child comes out, the mother asks, ‘Did you have to get a shot?’ and they say, ‘No, I never got one — but my lip feels funny.’ In fact, it’s happened several times. They never knew they got a shot because we’re good at that, and we’re good at a bunch of things. We try to keep patients happy and keep them coming back.”
Patterson states he is not retiring, but likes the laid-back atmosphere of not being the head honcho.
“For the first time in 50 years, I’m an employee!” he said. “I don’t have to worry about things, and with cutting down my schedule I don’t have to fool with anything. I look after my patients, and still look after the staff and we get our stuff done.”
Patterson said Hughes fits in well because he was once a patient at the practice. Patterson was asked if he influenced him to become a dentist.
“Maybe so,” he said.
The staff at Patterson & Hughes, which has 244 years of combined experience, including with Frank Patterson, is loyal to “Dr. Frank.”
Pam Parker: “I feel blessed to have spent the last 39 years working with Dr. Frank as my employer and my friend. He is an example of hard work, enjoying what you do and always having fun — that we do! He has put together a wonderful team and a great workplace environment. I am so very thankful to Dr. Frank for all these years of being a member of his staff and the family bond he has created among us all. Fifty years — Wow!
Brenda Clarey: “As an employee of Dr. Frank for 37 years, I can honestly say it’s been a pleasure working alongside not only my only boss but my friend. A wise man (Dr. Patterson Sr.) once said, ‘If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life,’ and I can certainly say that I do.”
Susan Lock: “In the 32 years I have been blessed to work with Dr. Frank, he has always made our workplace seem more like a family place. I appreciate the way he forms unique relationships with his patients and staff. He has treated patients of all ages, and along with providing amazing dental care, he takes a genuine interest in each one of their lives.”
Sonya Etheridge: “I have worked alongside Dr. Frank for 31 years. I don’t think of him as just a boss, I think of him as family. Dr. Frank’s love for dentistry, his patients and employees continues to show for 50 years now. I have been blessed to have found a job I love, but even more blessed to have him to work with.”
Deb McDaniel: “He embodies and represents how family medical practices should be operated. He has been passionate about providing dental care to the Dalton community. The exceptional treatment of staff and patients has never wavered. Dr. Frank is as vivacious, quick-witted and articulate as he has always been. There is no question that working alongside him is rewarding and unforgettable.”
LaNea McKeone: “Dr. Frank hired me as a high school graduate. I quickly learned two things about his practice: When you join his staff you are actually being adopted into a family, and his staff never leaves — they only retire! He continues to keep me thinking with his ‘out of the box’ questions and observations, as well as challenging me to look at things from different points of view. I have worked for Dr. Frank for 11 of his 50 years, and each day has been nothing short of a blessing!”
Trendy Norrell: “Dr. Frank has been an impactful force in my life. I have had the privilege to grow up in the dental office I am currently employed at. His ambition, intellect and quirky personality is the highlight of my work week! A family dental practice is not just a privately-owned business, it is also a group of dentists, hygienists and assistants that one can develop a kinship with. Dr. Frank has been a pillar in the Dalton community.”
Dr. Weston Hughes: “I’ve been a patient of Dr. Patterson since I was a kid. He was a big inspiration for me to pursue a career in dentistry. One of the things I admire most about him are the relationships with his patients and staff. He is a definition of a ‘people person’ with his kindness and compassion. I am very lucky to have him as a mentor and a friend. Congrats on 50 years, Doc, looking forward to many more!”