Class of ’69 looks back 50 years

How navigating a wartime detour changed their professional paths
February 7th, 2020
Class of 1969

The Class of 1969 reunited for their 50th anniversary at the school’s Jan. 24 homecoming celebration.

The Class of 1969’s homecoming tour of their dental school stomping grounds included a walk down memory lane.

Fifty years later, some recalled in particular classmates’ refusal to take their last test before graduation, says alumnus Dr. Max Chennault. That mindset fit right with the times: in the middle of the Vietnam War.

Back then, he says, the Class of ’69 watched as classes before them set up dental practices, only to be drafted, usually into the U.S. Army. Their income dried up, they couldn’t sell their practices and they wound up bankrupt.

Dr. Max Chennault’s 1969 senior portrait

With that, many in his class rethought their looming futures, Chennault says. A new private practice wasn’t in the cards. They decided to join the military branch of their choosing instead of waiting to get drafted.

In 1968, the fall of their senior year, many signed up to serve. Some of their peers, however, were turned away from enlisting because those slots had been filled, recalls classmate Dr. William E. Thornton, who was headed to the school’s oral and maxillofacial surgery residency program after graduation.

Those who did receive a slot graduated the next spring and started military life at the rank of captain with four years of experience, which came with a decent pay grade.

“It was a pretty good deal for all of us,” Chennault says. “It was a really good experience.”

Their assignments were mostly stateside to help with combat soldiers’ preventive dental care. Some classmates, however, served in Vietnam, where they practiced dentistry but also had to carry M16 rifles for protection.

Chennault was stationed at Malstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana. While there, he quickly learned that his dental education was top-notch.

“I was thrown into pretty good-size clinics with grads from all over the country,” he says. “It became clear that we had a pretty good education and clinical skills. The proof is in the pudding.”

Dr. William E. Thornton (left) with dental school classmate Dr. Gene Shelhamer

Thornton recalls how the military drafted him and other classmates two years after graduation. Unfortunately by then, many had gone ahead and invested in their practices, something they had wanted to delay initially.

“All of us drafted around 1971 were frustrated because many in our class had wanted to join the military in 1969 upon graduation but were not allowed to do so,” he says.

Thornton requested permission to finish his final year of school, which was granted. He then moved to San Antonio, where he practiced for 40 years. By early 1973, the draft was rescinded.

Chennault says the Vietnam War didn’t define their class long-term. Many went on to build successful dental practices. The classmates are also known for having an Olympic gold medalist among them (Dr. Fred Hansen, 1964 pole vault) and a mayor of San Antonio in the 1990s (Thornton). In 2007, Chennault retired after practicing in Garland for 38 years.

— Kathleen Green Pothier