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A true family practice: Estes family's roots run deep in Abilene

 

Family source of long line of healers

By Jeremy Goldmeier

Abilene Reporter News, Posted: March 26, 2012 


Dentist John L. Estes III still gets the occasional walk-in customer by sheer virtue of his last name.

"I looked in the Yellow Pages, saw 'Estes,' and figured you were OK," said one old man, who dropped by Estes Family Dentistry for a cleaning a few years back.

But the old-timer had a reason for that loyalty. Back when he was a boy living in Hawley, his mother had suffered a bout of appendicitis. The family took her into Abilene — to the practice of a certain Dr. Jack Estes.

Old Estes met the boy on the front porch to tell him that his mother was going to make a full recovery. Then the doctor asked what the boy was hoping to get for Christmas. The boy said he had hoped for a pony, but that his mother's illness would probably make a gift like that impossible.

That Christmas, Jack Estes bought that boy a pony.

Recounting the old man's story, Estes the dentist shakes his head and laughs.

"You have to be on your best behavior in that kind of situation," he said. "There's a bit of pressure!"

In the Abilene medical community, the Estes name carries that kind of legacy and responsibility. Following the Civil War, the first members of the family moved into Texas from Alabama. The family's very first physician, Jack Martin Estes, went to medical school in 1899, becoming the first doctor in Clyde and later moving to Abilene.

Two of his sons also became doctors, and so the dynasty began.

Today, the family tree of doctors and dentists has blossomed into a complex network of branches, filled with sons, daughters, nephews, nieces and cousins. Some have the Estes name, others don't. But it's safe to say that, for whatever reason, the passion to practice medicine flows in the family's blood.

On the front of the Estes Family Dentistry building, the surname appears repeatedly, almost to the point of parody: besides Estes III, there's John L. Estes Jr. (his late father), John L. Estes IV (his son), Jane Estes Weatherbee (his sister) and Gwin Estes Huey (his daughter). Dentists, every one.

Oh yes: and Estes Weatherbee's daughter is a pre-dental student at Abilene Christian University.

It's tempting to call it a matter of fate or genetics, but the entire family points to the magnetic influence of Estes Jr., who died in 2010.

The elder Estes, who practiced dentistry for 54 years in Abilene, had an ability to draw family members into the field without twisting their arms. He was both talented and loved what he did, a combination that proved impossible for others to resist.

"Everyone asks us that, if we ever felt pressure to be dentists," Estes III, 60, said. "Of course, we just say, 'What gave you that idea?' But I don't remember ever wanting to be anything else."

He does remember his father's days in dental school at the then newly constructed Texas Medical Center in Houston. Estes III would crawl along the hallways and peek under the swinging door to watch his father at work. Estes III would study and graduate at that same building, before joining his father's practice in 1976.

"He was a mentor figure, you might say," Estes III said. "He would back you up if you got in over your head and that sort of thing. You could try things you might not have done by yourself, because you knew there was always someone who could come in behind you."

Estes Weatherbee, meanwhile, began assisting her father at age 11 with duties like cleaning instruments. Throughout high school and college, she served as his dental assistant. Her father let her do all this without much comment, until she got her acceptance letter to dental school. Only then did he gush.

"I'm proud of you," he told her. "I thought you were doing this for me, but now I know that you're doing it for yourself."

Twin siblings Huey and Estes IV became third generation members of the practice for similar reasons. Huey says she always had wanted to be a dentist growing up, but that going on medical mission trips to Zambia with her grandparents really cemented the worth of the profession in her mind.

Of course, let it not be said that every Estes is born with a medical degree in his or her hand. Estes III and Estes Weatherbee's two other siblings found different paths that spoke to them: brother Jay is a rancher and businessman, and sister Jill is a certified professional accountant.

Then there's their cousin Gary Linn. He dabbled in banking for about a year after college before deciding to switch careers to — you guessed it — dentistry.

On the far other end of the family tree, there's Dr. B.J. Estes, who dubs himself "kissing cousins" with the dental branch of the clan. At age 80, he's only in semiretirement, still working part time at Hendrick Medical Center's wound care center. If there's one thing he has in common with his distant relatives, it's a lifelong love affair with his profession.

"I knew I wanted to be a doctor as soon as I got to be 3 years old," said Estes, affectionately known to generations of Abilene patients as "Dr. B.J." "I still enjoy doing what I'm doing."

He believes that he's the end of the direct line of Estes physicians, but given the sheer extent of the family at this point, he's hardly the last. An Abilene phone book wouldn't be complete without a "Dr. Estes" in there somewhere.

  
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