Roanoke loses beloved ‘Singing Dentist’

It is no exaggeration that Dr. Thomas Butt '57, a dentist by profession, had a huge zest for life.

"That's the kind of man he was," said his son, Dr. Thomas Hunter '89. "He was full bore hard as he could go. He was into everything - golf, hunting, skeet shooting."

And there was his love of music - so great and deep that in mid-life he started recording country music albums as a hobby and continued to do so until as recently as 2009.

Dr. Thomas Butt died Dec. 5, 2011 in Wytheville, where he was beloved as the town's "singing dentist."  He was 76.

A native of Pocahontas, Va., Butt graduated from Roanoke College with a B.A. in economics. At Roanoke, he was a member of Kappa Alpha Fraternity, captain of the swim team, and a leader and director of the College jazz band.

Butt earned a Doctor of Dental Surgery at the Medical College of Virginia in 1961. While a student there, he invented the first-known dental product containing fluoride - a fluoride mouthwash. As he was preparing to market it, the story goes, the dean almost dismissed him for "concocting a nostrum that had no value," the dean wrote in a letter.

The dean "thought it was a ridiculous idea and wrote [my father] a letter saying he should stop with the embarrassing idea of using fluoride as a topical treatment," Hunter said. "At the time there wasn't any research that showed fluoride hardened the enamel."

Butt backed off, only to learn before long, that the world would be introduced to Crest toothpaste with fluoride.

Butt served two years as a captain in the U.S. Army Dental Corps, where he received an Outstanding Achievement Award for his performance, and led the Medic Combo band. After his discharge, he moved to Wytheville in 1964 and established his dental practice. Once retired, Butt continued his interest in dental products and even obtained an international patent on one of them.

All the while, Butt pursued his passion for music. His colorful website - still up and running on the Web - chronicles the joy he derived from music in photos, songs and career highlights. 

Butt believed a great deal in public service. He contributed to many charitable causes, both in free dental care, time and money. A Roanoke College Associate, Butt was awarded the College Medal - the highest honor awarded to alumni - in 1982. It recognizes outstanding alumni who represent the ideals of responsible leadership, intellectual integrity, and good citizenship through their professional accomplishments, and through service to their community and alma mater.

Butt also helped launch a dental hygiene program at Wytheville Community College. There, he  established  two scholarships - one for students enrolled in the Dental Assisting and Dental Hygiene programs and another for students enrolled in the Nursing program.  

His son followed quite literally in his father's footsteps - graduating from Roanoke and MCV, and pursuing a career in dentistry. Dr. Hunter now works in the same dental office where his father worked.

And did he inherit his father's love for music?

"I'm involved in music, and I sing and play the guitar - and always have," Hunter said. "I sang all the way through college to earn spending money."

But what Hunter is certain he inherited from his father - and what he will remember most about him - is his amazing zest for life.

Butt is survived by four children, four grandchildren and one step-granddaughter.

Visit Dr. Thomas Butt's website at

-Leslie Taylor

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