Dr. Norman reflects on the past, plans for the future

Dr. Norman staff
Dr. John Norman, along with Spanky, the dental office’s mascot, and dental assistants Lea Parsekian and Tracy Chambers bid the Gulf Drive dental office goodbye as the practice closes after 42 years. - Kristin Swain | Sun

Dr. John Norman and his staff are preparing to say goodbye as they ready to close the dental practice that has been at its present Gulf Drive location for 42 years.

“It doesn’t feel real yet,” dental assistant Lea Parsekian said.

Though the doors are closing at Norman’s practice on Aug. 16, he said it’s not the ending he had hoped for. With changing demographics on the Island, he said it’s become more difficult to maintain a large enough client roster to keep the practice afloat. The decision to close was made around the beginning of July when Norman said he realized the finances just weren’t there to continue. Now though he’s not sure what’s in his retirement future, he’s positive he’ll miss his clients and his staff.

“It’s been my biggest joy, being able to help people,” Norman said. “We’re going to finish up on a good note.”

Norman recalls first coming to Anna Maria Island to visit with a friend’s family on the north end of the Island around 1963. By 1976 he’d graduated from dental school and decided to set up shop in Holmes Beach. The office at 5372 Gulf Drive is the only one that Norman has ever operated.

“When I started out, dentistry was I think the most trusted profession out of all of them,” Norman said. “Over the years it started to change. The first thing they did away with was the rule that you couldn’t advertise. When I started out we had one week we could put a business card size ad in the paper. The next week I got a call from the dental society people telling me it was an eighth of an inch too long. Boy, they were sticklers about that stuff. Nowadays it’s all about advertising. It’s all money driven, partly because of the cost of education because when guys get out of dental school now they’re $300,000 to $400,000 in debt so they can’t afford to be honest. They have to sell dentistry whether you need it or not. And most businesses, it’s all driven by greed.”

Norman said he came to the Island in the summer of 1976 to start his practice, renting an apartment behind the office building for himself and his dog.

“Everything was so informal back in those days,” he recalled, saying there were no large grocery stores on the Island, most people were either full- or part-time residents and everyone shopped at the locally-owned IGA grocery store, which is now home to Ginny and Jane E’s Café and Coastal Store.

“I think I had like $60 in my pocket when I came here,” he said. In the months before his practice opened, Norman said he worked as an instructor in the dental assistant program at a local junior college.

“When I came here Don Cummings had an office, right around the corner. He’d been here about a year. He moved into town. It always seemed there was more than enough for one dentist but not enough for two to really flourish. So he decided to go to town which turned out to be a great move on his part. He had a really good practice there for many years.”

His plan had been to open the practice in October, but construction delays kept the office closed until Dec. 3. On his first official day of business, Norman said things at the office were up and running but far from perfect.

“I had a card table up here for my receptionist. She was sitting at a card table. I was working in the middle laboratory and doing an exam on this person and there was a plumber laying between my legs working up under the sink, banging on the pipes, trying to get the water going and I needed some water so I sent my receptionist back to that apartment back there to get some water. She opened the door and my dog ran out, ran over here and jumped up on my leg. Believe it or not that patient kept coming until they died some years later. They thought it was pretty funny.”

The secret to the longevity of his practice, Norman said, is that it’s always been about the patients and helping people and never about the money. While he said there are many patients he’ll miss, he and his dog Spanky, the office’s unofficial mascot, will also miss the staff.

“He’s had a lot of really great patients for sure. He’s got a really good group of people who come and they’re really going to miss him. They’ve all made comments about how much they’ll miss him. He’ll be very missed,” dental assistant Tracy Chambers said. Chambers is moving one day a week to the Bradenton dental office of Dr. Ardoin on Manatee Avenue where Norman is referring patients.

Dental assistant Lea Parsekian recalled her time with Dr. Norman fondly and said she has no plans yet for what the future might bring.

“He’s definitely been the best boss I’ve worked for in my entire life,” she said. “I’ve always called this the unicorn job. It’s almost unreal. He gave us three paid vacations a year. If I ever was sick, he never hesitated. He was always understanding, loving, caring and never made me feel bad.”

Chambers agreed, saying that Norman looked after his staff even in difficult times. “Even during Hurricane Irma, that kind of set us back,” she said. “It was a ghost town out here. We got paid even though I’m sure he went without a paycheck. He made sure that we all still got paid.”

“I know I’ll never have a boss like this ever again. I still get excited to come to work. I’m definitely going to miss all this. It’s exciting and sad at the same time. I’m proud of Dr. Norman and he’s been blessed to serve the community for 42 years. It’s been a great ride,” Parsekian said.

“This crew I have now is the best I’ve ever had,” Norman said. “It’s been a helluva ride and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”