Veterans have no greater friend on earth than this Alabama dentist

Ella Castle

“Every day should be Veterans Day.” – Dr. Barry Booth Veterans have no greater friend on this earth than Dr. Barry Lee Booth. An Auburn graduate, Booth joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1963 while going to dental school at the University of Alabama. He began active duty in the […]

“Every day should be Veterans Day.” – Dr. Barry Booth

Veterans have no greater friend on this earth than Dr. Barry Lee Booth.

An Auburn graduate, Booth joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1963 while going to dental school at the University of Alabama. He began active duty in the Navy in 1966 and was sent to Vietnam and assigned to the Naval Support Activity in Danang. We’ll get to more about his work in Vietnam a bit later.

Following his service in the Navy, he found his way to Spanish Fort, Alabama, where he set up a dental practice and became a pillar of the South Alabama community. Dr. Booth cheerfully walks among us doing good things in big ways while taking little credit. For over half a century, he has been a joyful, passionate and relentless advocate for veterans. A patron of the arts, Booth has designed and commissioned several sculptures honoring veterans.

‘The Recruit’: Sculpture to be dedicated at unique Battleship ceremony – al.com

To support and defend: Hundreds turn out for enlistment ceremony, monument unveiling at Battleship Park – al.com

Dr. Booth was nudged into retirement by the pandemic on May 29, 2020 – 54 years to the day after he first opened his dental practice in Spanish Fort.

In light of Veterans Day, let’s catch up on a few of my humble friend’s ordeals – he calls them “opportunities”- and accomplishments. We might tell a story or two along the way.

Booth was the driving force in obtaining a $7 million grant for the Alabama State Veterans Memorial Cemetery near Spanish Fort. He pushed for the Baldwin County Commission to purchase the tract for the cemetery in 2006. He then donated three additional acres to the 100-acre cemetery.

Spanish Fort dentist named Veteran of the Year for HonorFlight, veterans’ cemetery work – al.com

Dr. Barry Booth named Fairhope’s Veteran of the Year – al.com

Honor Flight, Dr. Barry Booth honored by Mobile County Commission (photos, video) – al.com

Booth was key in orchestrating Honor Flight South Alabama. Nine Honor Flight South Alabama missions were flown from Mobile to Washington from 2008-2013, taking more than 950 WWII veterans to see the memorials.

“It’s their ticker tape parade they did not get when they returned from the war in 1945,” says Dr. Booth.

I was blessed to serve as a guardian on Honor Flight South Alabama V. After a day of training, Dr. Booth stressed to guardians that we were in charge of protecting precious treasure. Booth tends to get emotional when talking about our WWII veterans. We laughed, we cried, we paid attention to every detail of his instructions. At the end of the day, Booth gave us one order: “Don’t lose anybody.”

I was assigned as a guardian for two wonderful men: Waid “Butch” Turner and Fred “Fritz” Witzel. These fellows were a delight, and we became fast friends. But the sly Witzel kept me on my toes with his frequent disappearing act. He would slip into the crowd and vanish, then magically re-appear, the first to arrive at our next destination. Grinning ear-to-ear, he sat back and waited for the rest of us to get there. Nobody was happier to see him than me. Lots of close calls, but I DID NOT lose him. Both these fine gentlemen have since been promoted to their final resting place.

Tribute to heroes: Every day is Veterans Day – al.com

Honor Flight South Alabama: 10 Year Legacy Reunion – al.com

JD Crowe Tribute to Veterans – al.com

To walk among heroes of The Greatest Generation, hearing their stories, enjoying their laughter, seeing their tears, watching them being greeted as heroes at every turn – was an emotionally rich experience. It remains one of the most cherished days of my life. Thanks, Dr. Booth.

Alabama’s 106 year-old rock star: Tribute to ‘Mr. Jack’ – al.com

In June, 2021, Dr. Booth was surprised in receiving the Fuller Award – the highest honor given by the University Of Alabama School Of Dentistry Alumni Association. The Fuller Award was established to recognize great effort and the “giving back above and beyond” the practice of dentistry. The award is given only on the occasion of such achievement.

Here’s why there’s a giant dental pick in south Alabama – al.com

In his introduction of the “mystery recipient,” Booth’s friend and fellow Auburn College of Science and Mathematics alumnus, Dr. Michael O’Brien said:

“The fact that our recipient even made it to dental school is a tribute to his integrity and character and nothing short of a miracle. He grew up the oldest of three brothers in essentially a fatherless home. Motivated by the love and tenacity of a devoted mother and the need for basic survival, our recipient attended 13 school systems in eight different states before graduating – on time – from high school in Aiken, South Carolina.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our recipient has been given the keys to three cities for his civic contributions. He was presented the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest civilian award from the state by Governor Ivey. He has been nominated for the Lifetime Achievement award from Auburn University. Previous winners of the Auburn Award include Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, Octavia Spencer, celebrity actress, Charles Barkley, NBA great, and Jerry Beasley, former Alabama Lieutenant Governor.

“Many of you are wondering, “Who is this guy?” And when you meet him in just a minute, I bet at least someone will say “I have wondered who that hold-over hippie was who always comes to these events, but only stays about ten minutes.

“Most notably, ladies and gentlemen, our hold-over hippie is believed to be the largest individual donor in the HISTORY of the dental school. I’m going to say that again – the largest individual donor in the HISTORY of the dental school.”

Abandoned Army boxcar

Deserted by their father, three young Booth boys and their resilient mother left Mississippi and were rolling around the country in various states of homelessness for about 15 years. For a brief period, the boys lived in a Houston orphanage while their mama, doing the best she could, worked and figured a way forward. From Houston, the boys – 7, 5 and 3 – and their mama found refuge in an abandoned Army boxcar in El Paso, near Fort Bliss, Texas. They lived in the boxcar a little over a year. In the winter, it was so cold the boys often woke up with their eyes frozen shut.

3 Booth boys

3 Booth boys

One of the ways forward took the family to Charleston, West Virginia. That’s where Barry met a boy about his age who would become a lifelong friend: Wayne A. Rich, Jr. Colonel USMC (Retired.)

Col. Wayne Rich’s story

“I met Barry Booth when he was 11 years old. It was a summer day a couple blocks from my house near a minor league baseball park. There was a recreation area with several ballfields, I was with six guys from our church trying to find players for the church baseball team.

“I noticed three boys throwing the ball around. The oldest, Barry, was really good. I asked him to join us. His brothers, Prentiss and Alfred, came with him.”

Wayne invited the boys back to his house for lunch. “My mom adopted them, figuratively, right off the bat. Every Sunday we would pick them up and take them to church because you had to go to church to play for the team.”

“Barry could play anywhere, but he was an outstanding pitcher. He was intense. And focused. Traits that have served him all his life.

game face

Barry Booth Game Face

“Barry pitched, Prentiss was the catcher, and Alfred, the youngest, went to right field.” The church team was set.

“The first game we played, somebody hit a pop fly to right. Alfred was out there picking flowers and making daisy chains, and the ball fell right beside him. Barry left the mound and marched out to right field to educate Alfred that his duties as a right fielder didn’t include making flower arrangements. To this day we still laugh about Alfred playing right field and making daisy chains.”

“Barry and his brothers walked five miles from their residence on the other side of town to play ball. 10 miles round trip. And he made sure his younger brothers went with him. Barry, at age 11, was the man of the family and was taking care of his younger brothers and instilling values in them. He’s always had the core values we were taught in the Marine Corps and Navy, and he personifies that in everything he’s ever done – from before the age of 11 to present day.

“Barry went on to become an outstanding ballplayer for a semi-pro team, the Charleston Reds. He’s just a tremendous person inside and out. I truly consider him a brother.

“Ever since that time, the Booth family and the Rich family have been one family.”

Alfred Booth

I called Alfred, now a retired probate judge living in Prattville, Alabama, to confirm Col. Rich’s story about the daisy chains. He got a chuckle out of it.

“Barry was a good ballplayer, and I wasn’t,” he laughed. “He was pretty much our coach, too. Always a take-charge kind of guy. I always looked to him for guidance. He guided me and Bub (Prentiss) too.

“Barry has a certain charm about him. People like him. He didn’t ever ask for anything, but people want to do things for him. I regret I don’t have the same charm,” he chuckled. “Barry was always standing up for us.”

I don’t imagine Barry would tolerate a bully, would he?

“Nooooo! He’d be all over somebody if they were to mess with us. But you know, he never had to fight much. People didn’t want to be on his bad side. It was his charm, his personality. He wasn’t pushy or aggressive.”

Just respected.

‘Auburn, Alabama, is that way. Call me when you get there.’

The Booth family journey took them to Aiken, South Carolina, where Barry graduated high school. On time.

Barry’s plan was to join the Navy, like some of his buddies were doing. But his mama had another plan. “No, you need to go to college.” She told Barry to attend dental school.

“Yes ma’am.” The Navy would have to wait.

Booth packed a bag, and his mom drove him to the city limits of Aiken. “Here’s where you start.” Booth recalled, “Mom insisted I get out of that ‘49 Ford, pointed down the highway and said, ‘Auburn, Alabama, is that way. Call me when you get there.’

“Yes ma’am.”

“That was the start of my life without my family. I was 17.”

“You don’t have any money,” Mama said. “You’re going to have to talk your way into college.”

Booth stuck out his thumb, hitchhiked across Georgia into Alabama. In Auburn, he met up with a relative who sent him to meet James E. Foy, the dean of students.

“My mama sent me here to go to school.”

Mr. Foy said, “You can join the freshman class if you got $55.”

“Dean Foy, I don’t have $55. But if you loan it to me, I’ll have you paid back by the end of the quarter.”

A deal was made and a lifetime friendship between the two men was forged.

Before that day was over, Barry was working at the War Eagle Theater, the first of many jobs he would have at Auburn. His other jobs included working the front desk at the infirmary and driving ambulances, running a milk route every morning at the dairy, working for the agriculture department and library and as a dispatcher with the Auburn Police Department.

One day, Booth got called to the office of his class advisor. “Booth, you’re doing a good job, but you got too many jobs.”

“Dr. McCallum, the only way I can make it is to work. Let me work.”

“OK,” McCallum said, “Just keep all the jobs. But change your name on every other one so I don’t catch the flack.”

“My job at the Infirmary was room and board. So, for eight years – almost four at Auburn and then four in dental school – I always had a job that provided room and board. I never had to pay for a meal or pay for a bed.”

Living the Creed: Dr. Barry Booth’s lifetime of service commemorated with Auburn surprise

“I was so fortunate. I didn’t owe any money when I graduated from Auburn, and I didn’t owe any money when I graduated from dental school.”

Given his tough upbringing, to be a debt-free college graduate was a humbling accomplishment and an opportunity Booth never took for granted.

He was even able to save enough to help his brothers go to school. His youngest brother Alfred came to Auburn the week Barry was leaving, so he made sure little brother got his hand-me-down jobs.

U.S. Navy veteran

After graduating from Auburn, Booth joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1963 while going to dental school. Upon graduation in 1966, Booth began active duty with the U.S. Navy at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. Following field medical school at Camp Pendleton, he was sent to Vietnam and assigned to the Naval Support Activity in Danang.

He volunteered to work in the McNamara Hearts and Minds program treating Vietnamese locals. Most of his tour of duty was spent working on dental civic action projects with the Marine Corps 1st and 3rd divisions and 5th Special Forces at Camp Kham Duc.

“I would go out and do dental work and instruct the medics how to treat dental problems,” Booth said in an interview with Fairhope Public Library. “It was an absolute delight to be a part of various other military organizations. Every moment I was out in the bush was interesting, exciting and memorable.”

Interview with Veteran Barry Lee Booth – YouTube

Booth also worked with POW camps in Danang. “They needed a dentist, and those prisoners – men and boys – they had mamas and daddies.”

He has returned to Vietnam on three occasions to assist in other dental missions, and through those visits, he has reunited with people he knew during the war.

“Through the years, I’ve taken photographs of the same neighborhoods and the same people in their villages, so they’re able to see historical photos of themselves and their friends at a young age. On my visit in 2019, I was invited to a home and looked up to see my picture hanging on their wall from 1994.”

The last word

“Man, it’s been a distinct privilege,” said Booth. “What a Fortunate Son I have been to travel the road that I have and meet wonderful people along the way. It’s been glorious. Every time I went around, I got the brass ring.

Mama

Virginia “Miss Ginny” Booth

“My mama didn’t have material wealth, but she had a good mind and good instructions. I was smart enough to follow them.

“She was my rock. The engine of my life.

“I always had the last word with my mama,” Booth says.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Thanks for your service, Dr. Booth.

Special thanks to Margaret Coley, who is also a passionate advocate for veterans. She served on the Honor Flight South Alabama team and is an inspiration for this tribute to our mutual friend, Dr. Barry Booth.

True stories and stuff:

How I met Dr. Seuss – al.com

Robert Plant head-butted me. Thanks, David Coverdale – al.com

I was ZZ Top’s drummer for a night and got kidnapped by groupies – al.com

Check out more cartoons and stuff by JD Crowe

JD Crowe is the cartoonist for Alabama Media Group and AL.com. He won the RFK Human Rights Award for Editorial Cartoons in 2020. In 2018, he was awarded the Rex Babin Memorial Award for local and state cartoons by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. Follow JD on Facebook, Twitter @Crowejam and Instagram @JDCrowepix.

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