The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Dentistry celebrated its 114th graduation convocation ceremony May 17 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. A total of 177 dental professionals received degrees and/or certificates in dentistry, dental hygiene, advanced general dentistry or a dental specialty.
The School of Dentistry also used the occasion to recognize remarkable service by two oral and maxillofacial surgery alumni: the keynote speaker, Army Brigadier General Shan K. Bagby, chief of the Dental Corps; and Clinical Professor Robert R. Debes, DDS, MA.
Bagby noted that he completed a fellowship in oral and maxillofacial surgery 17 years ago at UTHealth Houston and Ben Taub General Hospital “under the watchful eye of people like Dr. Debes, Dr. (Mark) Wong and Dr. (James) Johnson.
“It’s very gratifying when your heroes start to see you as a peer,” he said. “I hope I honor the legacy of these people who taught me so well here.”
In 2018, Bagby became the first African-American to hold general officer status in the Dental Corps, and he’s often asked how that feels.
“I’m a first-generation college graduate, first-generation dentist, third-generation military person but first-generation officer,” he said. “What was possible for me might have been unthinkable had I been born in a different place in the world, in a different time. So I’m very grateful to live in a country where your history is not your destiny.”
He encouraged the graduates to take embrace opportunities they care about and take on leadership roles when they arise. “Wherever your journey leads,” he added, “it started here.”
Dental Hygiene Class of 1958 alumna Wanda Johnson Stanzel, RDH, led the Dental Hygiene Oath, while UTSD Alumni Association President Linda Sierra, DDS '78, led The Dentist’s Pledge.
After all graduates received their diplomas, Dean John Valenza deferred his closing remarks so the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery could recognize Debes for 63 years of service as a resident or faculty member of the School of Dentistry and UTHealth.
OMS Department Chair and Professor Mark Wong, DDS, said Debes has often said the students are the reason he’s stayed so long. “He just loves to teach, he loves to be there, he loves to be someone you can rely on,” Wong said, standing beside his colleague on stage.
Debes has taught multiple generations of UTSD students and some came forward to thank him — first, JoJo Omaghomi, president of the Class of 2019; then Christina Noblett, DDS ’18, who succeeded her grandfather (Class of 1957), mother (Class of 1988), and husband (Class of 2017) as students of Debes.
Professor Nagi Demian, DDS, MD, who completed the OMS residency in 2005, spoke next. “This university has a history of attracting excellent faculty, and one of those greats is Dr. Debes,” he said.
Professor Emeritus James “Jimmy” Johnson, DDS, MS — Debes’ student from 1962 — presented his former professor with a special gift: a caricature of Debes drawn by Tank McNamara cartoonist Bill Hinds, son of Edward C. Hinds, DDS, MD, who founded the OMS Department at the School of Dentistry in 1948.
As Debes accepted the gift and the honors, he waved to the audience, saying, “I hope all of you are as happy the rest of your life as you are today. I wish you well in your endeavors. It’s been a pleasure.”