Joel Hearn recounts the humble beginnings of the UAB fight song and plays his famous tune.
After graduating from the UAB School of Dentistry in 1972, followed by a three-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, Joel Hearn, D.M.D., found himself with two obvious options—return to the Air Force or enter private practice. But there was also another possibility: He could pursue a longtime dream and become a professional musician.
In the end he opted for door number three—briefly. “I spent six months playing the piano in restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina,” says Hearn, who now has a thriving endodontics practice in Florence, Alabama. “That’s when dentistry started to look pretty good, because music… well, when you have to do it, it’s not as much fun.”
When he left the full-time music scene, Hearn headed for Tampa, where he spent three years practicing general dentistry. But he had always wanted a more specialized practice, so in 1978 he returned to his alma mater for a residency in the Department of Endodontics. Hearn describes this interlude as among the best two years of his life. “It was a source of great education, mentorship, and long-lasting friendships,” he says.
It also gave Hearn a chance to break out his musical talents once again. While he was in Birmingham, the university held a contest to generate UAB’s first official fight song, which would be used as a rallying cry for the new basketball program.
“They offered a prize of $150,” Hearn recalls. “I was broke at the time, so I thought, ‘Hey, I could do this.’” Hearn’s composition was a change from his usual musical fare, but it managed to beat out pieces from a number of music students and professional musicians. Thinking it “a hoot” that Hearn had won, his fellow dental residents and even the department chair followed along as he went to collect his prize. “We all go down there,” Hearn remembers, “and they had not only a photographer but the whole band to play the song. It was crazy, but 30 years later I still get to hear it on national television.”
Comforts of Home
Hearn planned to return to Tampa when his residency was over, but a group of Florence-area dentists were actively recruiting him, and his brother, Thomas—who was senior vice president for UAB’s University College—persuaded him to stay closer to home.
That’s how a former musician ended up serving as Florence’s one and only endondontist for 14 years, working 10- and 12-hour days to keep up with demand before two other specialists opened nearby practices. Their arrival, Hearn says, has afforded him some freedom to enjoy other pursuits, such as spending time with his wife, Daryl, on their boat at Wilson Lake, and moonlighting with a Tuscaloosa-based band on occasion.
He’s even become an unofficial ambassador for his adopted hometown: While serving a term as president of the Alabama Dental Association, Hearn eschewed the usual tradition of holding the group’s annual leadership conference at some far-flung locale and instead hosted its members in Florence, where many had never even visited.
“I feel fortunate to have a great family, wonderful friends, and a great job,” Hearn says. “You can’t ask for more than that.”