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Dr. Gene Derricotte Blazes Trail
Eugene “Gene” Derricotte, D.D.S., was a high school valedictorian, a record-setting player for the University of Michigan Wolverines football team, a career military dentist, and a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal for his service as a Tuskegee Airman.
While these achievements are impressive on their own, Dr. Derricotte, now age 90, earned these accolades while overcoming racism prevalent in America at that time. His was one of two black families in Defiance, Ohio. After graduating as valedictorian from high school, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan, where he became the first African American to play in the offensive backfield. However, he was not able to live in the dorms with the other football players because of his race.
He was drafted in to the United States Army at the end of his first semester in college in December 1944. Dr. Derricotte first served as an artillery cannoneer in World War II. He traveled in a segregated train to get to basic training.
Dr. Derricotte was quickly sought to join the Tuskegee Airmen, a pilot training program for African American pilots. As he completed the Tuskegee Airmen’s rigorous training program, the war was over and he was discharged. (The success of the Tuskegee Airmen contributed to President Harry Truman signing in 1948 an executive order to integrate the military.)
He returned to the University of Michigan to complete his degree and became a triple threat as halfback, safety and punt returner for the football team. He set several new team records and caught a 45-yard reception in the 1948 Rose Bowl. Dr. Derricotte was selected in the first round of the All-America Football Conference draft in 1949 by the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, he was injured during training camp.
Not long after obtaining his bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and working for a few years, he decided to enroll in dental school. Upon graduation in 1958, he joined the United States Air Force at a time when dentists were heavily sought after. His assignments included serving in the Vietnam War as well as in South Dakota, Massachusetts, Texas, Hawaii, Virginia, Illinois, and the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
As Dr. Derricotte neared retirement and contemplated his next move, he got a call from a friend with what would become his next assignment—teaching.
“I used to work with a prosthodontist named Mick Morrow when I was stationed in Hawaii, doing pre-surgical work for his dental patients. He was at the Health Science Center, and he called and said they were looking for someone to teach. So I gave it a look,” recalled Dr. Derricotte, who had been previously stationed in San Antonio.
Although he had never been a teacher, Dr. Derricotte rose to the challenge and joined the faculty in 1985.
Dr. Derricotte considers teaching in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio as the height of his career.
“I worked with some very outstanding people, and learning from them took my skills to greater heights. It was a beautiful assignment,” he explained.
“I was doing something I liked, working with dentistry, so that made it a lot easier for me, because I had never had formal training in teaching,” he said. “It worked out well because I worked in the surgery department, and I’m pretty good with my hands.”
Dr. Derricotte speaks highly of his final career. “I’m so happy that it ended up that way for me. I don’t know how much the Health Science Center gained from it, but I gained so much,” he joked.
William W. Dodge, D.D.S., dean of the School of Dentistry, said dental students benefited greatly from being taught by Dr. Derricotte.
“Gene was a fine surgeon and a natural teacher,” Dr. Dodge said. “He also was an inspiring example of how someone can overcome challenges in life with grace. Gene never allowed the prejudice of others to be a detriment to his success. He became a well-respected oral surgeon and beloved member of faculty. He blazed a trail for many others to follow.”
Dr. Derricotte, who retired in 2002, still lives in San Antonio with Jeanne, his wife of more than 60 years. Their son and his family
live in the Atlanta area.