A gift that changed a life

June 24th, 2013

gift-titleJessie Strauch-Steele’s story begins with a devastating auto accident in New Mexico. The year was 1969, she was 18, and she had just broken every bone in her face and lost eight upper teeth after being thrown through the car windshield and skidding face-first on the pavement.

Six months and countless surgeries later, she arrived at the office of Dr. O.T. Rozzell of Clovis, N.M., a December 1947 A&M Baylor College of Dentistry graduate, to seek his help restoring her oral health. It was no easy task, technically or emotionally.

Jessie was in low spirits after having her mouth wired shut for months. She was reminded by the mirror every day of the head-to-toe road burns and lingering nose and mouth injuries. In a time before dental implants and bone regeneration were commonplace, Jessie faced the probability of dentures; a harsh reality for a young woman.

Rozzell suggested creating an 11-unit bridge to replace the missing teeth and avoid fitting her with dentures at that time. She says he cautioned her parents that if the bridge worked for a year he would consider it lucky, but he knew she was suffering emotionally and felt the bridge could buy some time for her to adjust.

“I wore this bridge until 1990, well past the one-year mark,” Jessie says, tongue in cheek. The replacement bridge lasted another 20 years, until she was nearly 60 years old. Her dentist “was a perfectionist, and he went ‘out of the box’ for my sanity,” she says.

Jessie remained so grateful that she wrote a letter in 2011 complimenting Rozzell to Dr. James S. Cole, then dean of the dental school.

“He has shown us the quality of dentists that your school puts out,” she wrote. “He is the most gracious and loving man and was a savior for me. You should be very proud of the alumni and let him know that he is thought of so deeply by his former patients.”

gift-1Jessie’s story is one of many interwoven with Rozzell. Retired for 12 years now, he occasionally gets stopped by a former patient at the grocery store with a question: “Do you remember when you did this?” in reference to some dental work.

Lila, his wife of 64 years, affectionately explains, “He is that kind of a dentist. He still has people calling.” Rozzell, however, has a good-natured quip in response: “Open your mouth, and I’ll probably remember you.”

In truth, Rozzell accumulated a large volume of patients during 50 years of practice and then volunteered with a traveling dental unit at local schools for another 10 years after he retired. All three of his daughters became dental hygienists, and a grandson entered dental practice in Clovis three years ago.

“He was very loved and a wonderful dentist who did beautiful work,” his wife says. “He was a good boss; very ethical and honest.”

Lila knows a thing or two about her husband’s work ethic; she came home from Texas Tech in 1948 to work for him that first summer in practice. The two had known each other all their lives, but happily the spark of romance hit that summer, and they married in November of that year.

Not long afterward, Rozzell was called up from the Navy Reserve to serve in the Korean conflict. That meant closing down his dental office completely, which he did without question. “When they called, you went,” he explains.

He and the other World War II-era students had attended A&M Baylor College of Dentistry on the Navy’s V-12 program, which was designed to increase the supply of commissioned officers to the armed forces. The dental students marched every Saturday at Southern Methodist University, wore their uniforms to class and even donned white smocks that buttoned on the shoulders over their khaki uniform in clinic.

“It was terribly hot — the buildings were not air conditioned — and I remember guys running to the window because of the heat and the formaldehyde smell,” Rozzell recalls. “It was an austere time, and they were very hard on us. They said you either made your grades and did what you were supposed to do, or you were going to the Marines.”

World War II ended before Rozzell’s junior and senior years, hence the reserve status and the eventual call to Korea. After his military service, he simply started practice all over again in Clovis. This time, though, he was in it to stay, and his employees stuck with him for many years.

The community responded positively to his caring nature, including Jessie, who will never forget the difference this exceptional dentist made in her life.

“I don’t think there will ever be another Dr. Rozzell,” she says. “He’s one of a kind.”

— Carolyn Cox