March 12, 2013

Vere Hodges Johnson Made Many Smiles

Gerald Simmons lay uncomfortably in the dental chair, unsure of what he was hearing.  Dr. Johnson was leaning over him, tools in hand, murmuring unhappily.  “Gerald, why it’s the darndest thing.  In all my years of dentistry, I have never seen anything quite like this,” Dr. Johnson repeated.  “It looks almost like one of your back molars at some time has come in contact with a strong electric current.”  As this registered with Gerald, his expression changed from alarm to understanding and he relaxed.  Dr. Johnson started to laugh as only he could. 
Relieved, Gerald chuckled too—Dr. Johnson’s laugh was far too infectious to avoid joining in.   

His memory went back to that summer day when he was a boy so many years ago.  He and his twin brother Darold thought the world of Vere Johnson, a neighbor boy just a few years older than they.  They all lived in the small rural town of Beaver Dam, Utah.  Often,  they went to see what Vere was up to, and did their best to shadow him and do whatever he was doing.  Even though the two little boys almost certainly got in his way, Vere never sent them away.  Instead, he teased them and paid attention to them.   They loved being with Vere.  He laughed all the time.  It was just plain fun to be with him. 

One day when they were shadowing Vere on an errand, they came to an electric fence along the way.  Vere got that distinct twinkle in his eye Gerald and Darold learned to avoid.  Vere asked them how tough they were.  “Are you tough enough to bite an electric fence?” Vere asked.  Vere cupped his hands close to the fence and pretended to bite between his hands, so they couldn’t tell he wasn’t really biting the fence.  Gerald and Darold knew they could do it too.  Gerald leaned in quickly, mouth wide open and clamped his teeth onto the fence.  The electric shock proved that Vere had gotten them again!  And Vere’s accompanying laugh all the way back to their house rang in their ears.  Vere had tricked them into other scrapes as well— once he sent them in to the chicken coop to look for a skunk with clothespins on their noses.  “There’s no tunk but there’s plenty of tink,” they reported, a statement Vere repeated with relish for years to come.  There were other little boys who liked to follow Vere around; they were treated to greased ears (don’t want to catch brain fever) or taught to swim by being roped and thrown into a river, or hung up in the barn by their overhauls.  

After these kinds of pranks as kids, why did Gerald trust Vere Johnson, now Dr. Johnson, to take care of his teeth?  Could he trust a man who got such a kick out of teasing people to not take advantage of him?  Gerald, like many others, had decided that Vere was the most honest dentist in Cache Valley and Gerald wouldn’t go to any other dentist.  Dr. Johnson’s rates were the lowest and he didn’t do work that wasn’t necessary.  It was hard to get an appointment with Dr. Johnson because he was booked up solid six months ahead.  

Indeed, Vere had discussed his fees with his wife, Winnie Johnson.  She often heard how the other dentists in the area were angry with Vere because his prices were so low.   He’d tell her, “I don’t have to answer to those other dentists about what I charge my patients.  I know what my expenses are and I make a good living.  I don’t have to gouge my patients to be in line with what my profession charges.  I only have to answer to God and my own conscience for how I run my business.” 

Kathy, Vere’s daughter, worked for him for a few years, recording the charges for services rendered.  She explained, “Bitewing x-rays were $4, there were three different charges for fillings, depending on the size: $4, $8 and $12.  There was never any charge for a check-up if no work was needed.  I remember a time when a family came in with 10 children.  All, including the parents, were checked, which took most of the morning and none had any work needing to be done, so there was absolutely no charge to that family.  It isn’t any wonder that my dad was booked every 15 minutes.  He called the office ‘the salt mine’ because he was so pressed by people there.  People would come from Alaska and California to have him do their dental work because they could pay for their whole trip and stay a week in Utah and have spent less than going to a dentist where they lived.  I remember Dad saying that wisdom teeth were usually the easiest to extract.  There was usually no expense to the dentist to do the extracting.  He only used a little Novocain and an extraction tool.  He was angry when he heard what other dentists charged.”

Indeed, Dr. Johnson charged far less than the average dentist.  According to a study published in the American Dental Association about this time, other dentists charged $5 on average for an exam and an average of $10 for a one surface filling and $22 for a three surface filling at the time.[1]  Dr. Johnson charged nothing for an exam and about half of the other figures.
“What an extraordinary man was my father,” Kathy continued, “How little the world and greed controlled his decisions.”

Gerald Simmons' wife emotionally explained her husbands’ love for Vere, saying that he truly idolized Vere all of his life.  When Gerald wrote his personal life history, he named Vere as one of three heroes he had as a child growing up.  She said how sad it was for them to miss Vere’s funeral, as they were serving a Temple Mission in Nauvoo when he died.  She expressed how much Vere meant to herself and to her husband and how she still missed Dr. Johnson after all these years since his retirement.  “I still can’t bring myself to go to another dentist,” she said.  She made this statement some 25 years after he retired.  

Vere clearly had a sense of humor and teased his friends and associates.  This was one of Vere’s many endearing traits.  Many found his honesty and fairness made him the most trusted dentist in Cache Valley.   Combined, this made a visit to the dentist an enjoyable experience.  A family friend made this statement:  "When Dr. Johnson attends, the pain is gone, the patient smiles."  Indeed all who interacted with Vere Johnson, either as a friend or a Dentist, always left with a smile.  Proverbs 17:22 reads, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  Over the years, Vere shared a great deal of merriness that was indeed good medicine for all of us who knew and loved him.

[1] L. Jackson Brown, D.D.S., Ph.D.; Vickie Lazar, M.A., M.S., Dental Procedure Fees 1975 Through 1995: How Much Have They Changed?  Journal of the American Dental Association, Vol. 129, September 1998, pp. 1291-1295.

Thatcher, Kathy Johnson.  Email correspondence March 2009.

1 comment:

  1. Great tribute to one of the grandest men to ever live. Thanks for sharing it.