Wilmington, NC, dentist H.A. ‘Hal’ Nicholson retires

For more than half a century, Dr. HA “Hal” Nicholson III's dental practice on Doctors Circle across from Novant New Hanover Regional Medical Center on South 17th Street has been a fixture of Wilmington life.

By December, however, things changed — like so many other things that have happened in Wilmington recently — when Nicholson, 82, retired after 53 years in the doctor's circle. In a letter to patients announcing his retirement, Nicholson wrote that he had been in practice “probably longer than any other dentist in the area. Over the years, I have met many wonderful patients and developed countless relationships, I will always be grateful for that.

In an interview, Nicholson admitted, “I could have retired, but I guess I'm getting old. It's time to move on,” he said with a laugh. “Fifty-three years is a long time to do anything.”

He said he plans to spend more time with friends and family and indulge in his long-time hobby of duck hunting.

Full disclosure: I am 53 years old and Nickerson has actually been my only dentist since the second grade. I took to heart the advice he always gave me about brushing, flossing, cleaning and rinsing my teeth, and it served me well. (Bonus tip: Nicholson Let me tell you, don’t underestimate the power of a good, balanced diet and avoiding sweets in improving your dental health.)

But now, I and some others will have to adapt to a new reality in which Nicholson's professional and comforting approach is no longer part of a visit to the dentist.

Nicholson's office will remain there, with most of the original staff — including Cheryl Tripp and Lula Hudgens, both of whom have worked for him for more than 40 years — but the new Dentist Dr. Lucas Fugaza will take over Nicholson's practice.

Nicholson said he had other offers to take over his clinic. But after meeting Fugaza, who has lived in Wilmington for the past 10 years, Nicholson said he was “sure he was exactly the guy I was looking for.”

Childhood Dentist Memory No. 1: These adorable toothed footstools are placed throughout Nicholson’s office.

“There are people coming to sell these things,” Nicholson said. “There were three or four of them, and I bought them all.”

His employees loved the dental stools so much that he allowed several people to take them home over the years, but some of the items remain in the office.

Nickerson originally came to New Hanover County from the University of Tennessee College of Dentistry in Memphis, where he worked with the North Carolina State Board of Health. He then spent two years with the U.S. Army Dental Corps, including one year at the Eighth Field Hospital in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

After his discharge, Nicholson returned to Wilmington and worked for a year under the direction of Dr. Ben Smith at Physician's Circle 1606, which was run by Smith's son, Clayton B. Smith III. III) Operation.

Nickerson built his current office from scratch in 1971 and became hands-on.

“There weren't a lot of people there,” Nicholson said. “There’s a huge ditch in front of my office and they have to (fix it) before it can open.”

Nicholson said when he opened, there were fewer than 30 dentists in the three-county area and no pediatric dentists. If a young child requires dental surgery, it must be performed in a hospital under complete sedation. Today, there are more than 300 practicing dentists in the Wilmington area.

Nicholson said he has seen many changes in the field of dentistry since he started: “implants, digital dentistry, a lot of new materials, and so on.” He said he and other dentists can now deliver “more results than before” It’s even more pleasing to the eye.”

Childhood Dentist Memories No. 2: I had my bi-annual checkup with Dr. Nickerson, and the hygienist was visibly excited. However, she quickly apologized and explained that the young man in front of me had just finished a bag of chips and came in to clean up.

“Some people think they shouldn't brush their teeth before going to the dentist,” Nicholson says, perhaps because they get their teeth cleaned anyway. Dr. Nicholson is too nice to say that, but I think we can all agree those people are wrong.

Nicholson's career lasted long enough that he eventually saw the children and even some grandchildren of many of the patients he first met as children.

While most days in his office are uneventful, not all are.

“One mother fainted when I was pulling out (her child's) baby teeth,” he said. “I was working and suddenly I heard a thump on the floor.”

Nicholson said he has received “a ton of cards and feedback” from patients since he retired. He said that when he went out to dinner that night, several patients expressed their gratitude and well wishes to him.

“I enjoy doing dental work in Wilmington,” Nicholson said. “People are a little sad … but mostly positive. That's a good thing.”

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