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Former Willmar dentist celebrates 100th birthday, was part of city history

Dr. Donald Gilman is 100 today. He spent decades as a dentist in Willmar. Tribune photo by TJ Jerke

Today, Dr. Donald Gilman will hear "Happy Birthday" from family and friends for the 100th time. When asked what it feels like to be turning a century, Gilman's answer is simple: "100, it's just like being 99."

The retired Willmar dentist has been through it all, some might say: from a young child during the Great War, through the Roarin' 20s, the Dust Bowl, World War II and the Vietnam-era. His secret to longevity: "Hard work, clean living and having a nice lady at the house to take care of me."

He was born in Willmar in 1911 and graduated from Willmar High School in 1929. He spent three years at Macalister College in St. Paul, later graduating from the University of Minnesota as a dentist.

Gilman said he went into dentistry because "I liked to work with my hands." And "visiting with people," his wife, Donna, was quick to add. They have been married since 1938 and are the parents of two daughters and the grandparents of seven.

He began practicing in Atwater and later served in the Army Reserves. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he was activated and deployed to Iwo Jima.

By the 1950s, Gilman was back in Willmar and operating a dental office near the post office on Trott Avenue.

His business expanded in 1964, with the hiring of Kerkhoven dentist Dean Quale.

Ten years later, they took on a third partner, John Gilbertson.

Both Quale and Gilbertson said Gilman was quick on his feet and never missed a beat during his 34 years in dentistry.

"He walked everywhere he went," Gilbertson said. "He walked to work, from work, he just walked a lot."

Quale said Gilman was always working and wouldn't stop for a lunch break some days.

"He was a tremendously hardworking," Quale said. "He loved to work."

Gilman retired when he was 70, selling his shares of the practice to Dr. Steve Martinka, who still operates the dentistry at 408 Trott Avenue Southwest with his son, Scott.