“I was sick and tired of being asked, what the heck are you doing hanging around here when my son is fighting overseas.” That was 1941-42, and the young man was Wally Niemann, well over 6 feet tall, feeling guilty and worthless. He had volunteered for the military and was rejected by both the Navy and the Coast Guard – because of bad eyes, flat feet, and an open bite (unable to bite down on front teeth). Wally says he continued going to the University of Chicago until the military really got desperate. He came up for the draft, and his poor eyesight, flat feet, and imperfect bite were suddenly ignored. He was simply asked “what do you want, the Army or the Navy. That same night he was sworn in and spent the next 26 months in the U.S. Navy.
Wally was born in Menominee, Michigan in 1925. The city is located at the southern-most tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, about 60 miles north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Wally’s dad played center for the Green Bay Packers (Curly Lambeau was the quarterback) from 1922-24. The Packers were not yet members of the National Football League, which was founded in 1920. Wally says his dad also played in the first game played between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. A game in which George Halas also played – for the Bears.
When Wally was about to graduate from high school, a University of Michigan Dental School Dean came to Menominee to visit the U. of M. Club there, also headed by a dentist. Interest was expressed in Wally as a potential U. of M. student. He had graduated 12th in his class of 160. But Wally chose to move to Chicago to be with his mother, and to attend the university there. Following his military duty, Wally was again recruited by the dean of the Dental School at Michigan. This time he accepted and ended up finishing his undergrad work at Michigan and attending dental school from 1947-51. Wally met his wife to be during this time. She was a Library Science student at Michigan – AND the Michigan Dental School dean also re-connected with a woman who became his wife. Can you even guess who this might have been? Yes, you’re right, Wally’s mother. So, the question is at least raised, if not answered. What exactly was the level of interest the dean had in Wally attending U. of M. versus that of marrying his mother? Were the two at all “connected?” No matter, really. Everyone lived happily ever after. A good place to end our interview. But, no, there is much more of significance. Please read on.
Now here is some of the “happily ever-after” part. After staying for another year at the dental school, Wally and his wife shopped around for a dental practice in Ann Arbor. The finally bought one on the 4th floor of the First National Building, the tallest building in town at the time. They got a loan for $2200 which covered the entire cost. After about 4 years the practice was moved to State Street (above Marty Walker’s), but it was on the 4th floor, 40 stairs to walk up, patients always late for their appointments because of no place to park. So the move was made to 2228 Packard, an old building which Wally made into a dental office. And 65 years later, just about 3 months ago, Wally officially retired from his work as a dentist.
Squash was Wally’s sport for many years, but following double by-pass heart surgery – and unable to run much, Wally found pickle ball which he describes as “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” He says it’s so easy, comparatively – and so much fun. “You get to see so many people. It’s like a social club.” He says he would like to play more but some aches and pains have made it more difficult. By the way, Wally is “about 92 and a half” as he puts it. He was a part of that original group of people that included Bill, Liz, Lucy, and Rick about 10 years ago.
For Wally, the most challenging part of the game is “backing up.” He says “falling is about the worst thing I can think of for me, at my age.”
The two most influential people in Wally’s life have been his dad, who not only played for the Packers, but was also an inventor of many things. He has several patents. The other person is, yes, the dental school dean from Ann Arbor who first interested Wally in what became his life-long career. Wally attributes his ability to interpolate to his dad. He said he once took a course at the University of Chicago which was entitled, “Observation, Interpretation, and Interpolation.” He says “I use the interpolation because I’m always trying to figure out what I can do with things.”
One of the things that Wally is widely-known for is the development of an oral splint which prevents clenching of the teeth. He points out that research now supports the notion that migraine headaches are associated with mandibular disturbances. He says the splints now being used by most dentists are of the “horseshoe” type that fit over the teeth and, while they do prevent the breaking and wearing of teeth, they do not prevent clenching. The type of splint Wally has made is called the “Michigan Splint” and there are still dentists in this state making them, but not enough. He would like to see a wider acceptance of this type of splint because it so effective in reducing muscle stiffness and pain. Some of Wally’s patients have overcome things like loss of balance and sleep apnea by wearing the Michigan Splint. Several of our players, including me, have been wearing splints tailor-made by Wally at no cost to us. For that we are grateful. They really do work.
When asked what might be the one life lesson Wally would pass on to others he, unhesitatingly says “Rely on the Lord. I’m still doing it all the time. People ask me when do I pray, and I say, when do I not. All the problems of life can be dealt with through the power of faith.”
Wally’s favorite place is where the heat is dry, probably Arizona where he visits cousins.
Wally has 7 children, 19 grandchildren, and “about 8 great grandchildren.” He now lives in St.Joseph Village which is associated with the hospital, but is a free-standing building. He says it’s like a big hotel. “Lots of nice people taking care of you.”
Wally’s favorite color is blue, mainly because that was his wife’s favorite color.
Wally has found a local dentist who provides Michigan splints. She has two dental degrees, and he recommends her. Her name: SHASHI KRISHMAN D.D.S. 2900 Golfside Rd. Ann Arbor 48108. 734-434-2080 (home:662-2051)
You can learn more about Wally and his work at: ddswally.com