The dentist and the sea
How Dr. William Tom Johnson ’65 became Captain Willy T.
It’s a beautiful morning on the island of St. Croix. Millie and Dr. Tom Johnson relax at their kitchen bar, soaking up the October sun streaming in through the wall of windows. The Caribbean Sea and Buck Island stretch out before them; the fresh-air view from the side porch is just a few steps away. Tom Johnson’s preferred lounging spot — a blue woven hammock — beckons. Hummingbird feeders sway in the breeze, and stepping stones bend around the house to the pool, just out of sight.
In the nautical-inspired living room, Sydney, a 14 year-old African grey, fluffs her feathers. Right now she walks, pensive on her perch, but most mornings are spent out of the cage, taunting the five cats. All of them are out of sight, save for Captain Jack, waiting at the end of the hall, tail flicking back and forth.
The hallway is filled with photos nearly as fantastical as the couple’s adventures themselves. There’s Millie Johnson, dressed in full belly dancer costume complete with sabers, reclining on the white sand of a North Padre Island beach. Thanks to the Liberty Ship project — in which a dozen World War II-era ships were sunk in the mid-‘70s to create artificial reefs in the Texas Gulf — a framed copy of Southern Living, circa 1975, hangs on the wall. The magazine tells the story of a dentist with a U.S. Coast Guard license who spent his working hours in the operatory and every other waking moment near, on or in the water — as a charter boat captain, ship-sinker extraordinaire and one-time diving buddy of Jacques Cousteau.
Welcome to the life of Captain Tom, aka Captain Willy T, aka Dr. Wm. Tom Johnson ’65. Nearly 17 years into a successful dental career, he sold his Corpus Christi, Texas, practice, sailed away on a CT-42 Mermaid Ketch with his belly dancer wife, Millie, and their talking parrot, Captain Hook, and never looked back.
The venture was only intended to last four years. That was in 1982. But what can you expect when an Oklahoma boy with a thirst for the ocean gets behind the helm of a sailboat — aptly named Serena, Millie’s stage name — and charts a course for the Caribbean?
The two wound their way from Corpus Christi, up to the Chesapeake, back down to Florida and then island-hopped through the Bahamas and eastern Caribbean to Venezuela. They stopped for weeks on end at hot spots like St. Martin, Antigua and seemingly everywhere in between, striking up friendships and mischief wherever they went. Toward the end of the journey, while sailing back up the island chain and finally mooring in Christiansted Harbor in St. Croix, the couple decided to make the island their home, living 15 years aboard the Serena.
But during those years on the high seas, dentistry still had its place in Tom’s life.
“I had a DentalEZ compact dental equipment box designed for the Vietnam War that had high-speed, low-speed, air-driven drills and a multiplex syringe that could be hooked up to a small compressor or scuba tank,” says Tom, who also outfitted a Pelican dive case with a complete set of dental equipment.
“I gave out a lot of free exams and advice, but never did I have a need to open any of those cases,” he adds. That didn’t keep him from gaining the title of dentist among island publications such as Caribbean Boating, which chronicled the unlikely cruising duo.
There was only one time when Tom considered returning to dentistry. As he describes in his 2011 memoir, “Sailing the Dream,” Hurricane Hugo had come howling into St. Croix, leaving the tropical paradise a swampy mess with a decimated economy.
“Hurricane Hugo was such a complete, chaotic disaster with little hope for a speedy recovery that it took a night out at Buck Island a week later under the stars listening to Jimmy Buffett’s song ‘Island’ for me to come to my senses,” he reminisces.
It’s not that Tom doesn’t love his former profession — he just loves island life more.
These days, this Ernest Hemingway look-alike (and 2011 look-alike contest participant) spends much time cutting unruly island foliage, cleaning the pool and chasing iguanas from their house, which they bought in 1997. Millie nurtures “Serena’s Showroom,” a business she began all those years ago on board their boat. She works as a manufacturer’s representative, selling clothing lines to island retailers.
“We’ve had 40 years together. Who knows what he’s going to get me into next?” Millie laughs.
Later that evening, the couple reveals the island scene via Facetime call from happy hour at the St. Croix Yacht Club. In typical island casual style, Tom is sporting a loose-fitting white shirt and signature Hemingway-inspired cap, while Millie relaxes in a tangerine tank and gold bangle bracelets.
The atmosphere at the open-air club is bright. Hawaiian shirt patterns, broad smiles and refreshing island libations dominate. It’s good times, but to truly understand it, well, that’s an island t’ing.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 Baylor Dental Journal.—Jenny Fuentes