Maybe it was the fond memories of marching with Arkansas’ Band of Distinction on game days at Buerkle Field.
It could have been a result of the persistence she developed during 6 a.m. conditioning workouts as a member of the Arkansas Tech University U.S. Army ROTC program.
Perhaps it was her recollections of all those hours playing flute at ATU commencement ceremonies.
Whatever it was, something inside Dr. LaRee Johnson wouldn’t allow her to shake the feeling she had unfinished business at Arkansas Tech.
“Even though I always considered myself an alumna of ATU, I felt incomplete,” said Johnson.
That feeling was erased in December 2020 when Johnson received her Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Arkansas Tech.
“Now, I feel a deeper connection to my foundational alma mater and all my fellow alumni,” said Johnson. “It has been an arduous journey. I have made mistakes and had to regroup, strategize and work harder to overcome. With faith, friends, family who made me strong and resilient and an armada of teachers who believed in and guided me, I was driven to be the best I can be.”
Johnson began her educational journey by attending eight K-12 school districts, the last of which was in Russellville. She was active in band, basketball and track at Russellville High School while also working at Walmart and Hardee’s.
“My plan since elementary school was to save enough money to be able to attend college,” said Johnson.
It was during her junior year at Russellville High School that Johnson received a life-changing piece of motivation from Hal Cooper, who was then director of bands at Arkansas Tech.
“He told me that if I worked hard, I could get a color guard marching season and flute concert season scholarship despite not planning to be a music major,” said Johnson. “He was so generous to make that offer, and I worked hard to earn it.”
That scholarship, along with additional financial aid Johnson earned due to her high school academic achievements and her commitment to participate in the ATU U.S. Army ROTC program, helped Johnson enroll at Arkansas Tech following her graduation from RHS in 1990.
She packed four years of college experiences --- and almost four years of college credits --- into the next two years.
In addition to her involvement in marching band, concert band and ROTC, Johnson found inspiration to write in the ATU Department of English, a love of studying the natural world around her in Dr. Glyn Turnipseed’s classes and an appreciation of art in all its forms under the mentorship of Andy Anders.
By the end of her second year at ATU, Johnson had earned 103 credit hours and was achieving academically at a level that made her a candidate for professional school. She took the American Dental Association dental admission test and earned an interview at the University of Tennessee-Memphis.
“The interview process began with a tour, and the tour began in the pediatric dental clinic,” said Johnson. “There have been a few times in my life where there has been an undeniable warmth and certainty that has enveloped me with unshakable assurance of the path I must take. This was one of those moments.
“The sunlight was streaming through the narrow windows near the ceiling onto the children in the dental chairs,” continued Johnson. “Everyone was focused on providing their care and I had never been more certain about anything. I could not think of anything more rewarding than providing compassionate dental care for children. It was the perfect intersection of my three favorite things: children, science and art.”
With that, Johnson scooped up the credit hours she had earned at Arkansas Tech and enrolled in dental school at the age of 19.
“I do not recommend finishing undergrad in two years,” said Johnson. “Stay in undergrad all four years and take in everything the experience can bring. Being accepted to dental school at 19 was intimidating. With confidence, I am certain there is not a science department in our country that outperforms ATU’s in preparing students to not only be accepted to professional schools but thrive when they arrive.”
Johnson earned her Doctor of Dental Surgery from the University of Tennessee in 1996 and subsequently added a Master of Science degree from the University of North Carolina in 1999.
She founded Carolina Pediatric Dentistry in Raleigh, N.C., in 2002 and practices there as its co-owner.
Johnson is a fellow with the International College of Dentists, American College of Dentists and American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
She is president of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry.
"Frankly, I feel so sorry for everyone that only gets to work with grown-ups," said Johnson. "Despite what kind of chaos is present in the world, honesty, humor, joy, and fascination can always be found in the face of a child. As a specialist, I am trained and comfortable to be an end provider, meaning it does not matter how significant a child’s special health care needs are, I can help them.
"After I became I mom, and having a child with special health care needs, my professional world changed," continued Johnson. "Instead of being able to simply focus on the children, my heart now aches for the worry I know the parents feel. It is sad to see emergencies and I wish children did not knock out teeth, break teeth and get abscesses, but to see them happy when we fix them up is nice. I love my job."