You walk into the space and you feel instantly soothed. All is stable and peaceful here. The staff greets you warmly. The ambiance bustles with tranquility and good cheer.
It’s almost as though you didn’t just enter a dentist’s office…
Dr. Larry Napolitano, DDS, has practiced in Milpitas for 35 years. August 13 marked his practice’s 35th anniversary. The Milpitas Beat stopped by in advance of that date, to chat about Larry’s lengthy journey, which has taken many unexpected turns…
His family first moved to Milpitas in 1964, when Larry was 7 years old. “Milpitas was just growing like a weed then,” he recalled.
They lived in a home off Park Victoria. Larry recalls attending just about every grammar school in town: “They kept building grammar schools and houses, grammar schools and houses…”
Coming from a blue collar family, Larry had no notion of going to college. In his high school years, he carried out vocational coursework. In his spare time, he’d work on fixing up cars and motorcycles.
His ambition? To someday work as a mechanic. However, the more Larry took a look around himself, the more he saw other possibilities coming into focus…
“I guess I was sort of an observer as a younger guy,” he explained. He saw friends and acquaintances of his parents in action, and noted who was doing well and who was doing not so well, and tried to figure out where the difference lay.
One figure who stood out to him was Dr. Richard Cooley, his family dentist. To Larry, Richard seemed like such a happy guy. In Larry’s mind, going to the dentist generally meant encountering some “staid, quiet, serious guy,” but Richard was not at all that way. Larry described him as “outgoing, engaging, and affable.”
Also noteworthy were the freedom and flexibility that dentistry afforded Richard. As would gradually become more clear to Larry, a dentist could work 3 days a week, or 6 days a week…4 hours a day, or 10 hours a day…be an insurance PPO office, or a specialty office…etc., etc….
“What a way,” Larry marveled, “to lead your day-to-day work life.”
Though the option of being a mechanic was still prominent in Larry’s mind, he found himself thinking, I think I want to do something. I want to have my own business…
No clear path existed from vocational school to him owning his own shop. But dental school? That would be a much different story.
So Larry Napolitano got on the path to college.
He attended Evergreen Valley College the very first year it opened. Having not been collegebound, and having scarce experience in Math or Science, he found himself working extremely hard. But he looks back on his wonderful and supportive instructors as playing a key role in ensuring his progress.
After a fairly rigorous application process, Larry then ended up at San Jose State. When it came time to study dentistry, he attended UCSF School of Dentistry in San Francisco, where he got a “really, really good education.”
Next came the decision of a lifetime: Where to practice…?
“If you’re a dentist, you can practice anywhere in the state. You can go up or down the coast. You can go inland; you can go anywhere you want.”
As dental school wound its way to a close, Larry found himself wondering where he was going to go. By then, he’d met his wife, Valerie, whose family had been in the Milpitas area for generations, having originally settled here as Portuguese ranchers and farmers many years ago.
Larry had maintained a good relationship with Dr. Richard Cooley. As such, they’d had a plan in the making: After dental school, Larry would commence work at Richard’s office as an Associate. So, in his final days of dental school, Larry dropped in to see Richard for a chat about it.
The year was 1984.
The economy wasn’t great at the time, and Richard had to break some bad news to Larry: His practice just wasn’t busy enough to take on an Associate. Larry left the office deflated.
A week later, however, he got a phone call from one Dennis Jones. Jones, who was in his early 40s, had shared the office with Richard for a stretch, but, unbeknownst to Richard, was thinking of moving out of state.
“This is on the q.t….” Jones said to Larry, as he didn’t yet have any definite plans.
Bottom line, though: He wanted Larry to buy his practice.
As graduation drew near, Larry started making arrangements to do just that. The very day after he passed his boards, he was right there in the office, a mask on his face, doing dental work on his first patients.
Though there’s been remodeling and renovation work since then, Larry has not once changed locations.
In the mid-90s, Richard relocated to a different space in the same complex, but Larry stayed right where he was. Richard Cooley has since passed away, but as an element of his proud Milpitas legacy, Larry Napolitano still occupies the space that he long filled.
Larry continues to see patients who were around before he got there. Many others started coming after his arrival. A general practice, Larry’s office serves everyone from toddlers to those who are advanced in age, offering everything from simple fillings and cleanings to complex implants and orthodontics. As a result, he sees a wide and deep variety of patients. “It’s a kick,” he said, describing times when parents come in with their children, and the kids say, “I don’t get to go?!”
“It’s wonderful to have that sort of a vibe.”
Eight staff members occupy the office in addition to Larry: 3 hygienists, 3 dental assistants, and 2 front desk staff members.
“This practice just fell into my lap,” Larry explained, before going on to add, “It’s not like it’s not a challenge…”
He pointed out how life challenges, such as a family illness, have called upon his deepest fortitude to keep the business operating smoothly. But the business itself has never once let him down:
“This place is almost like a refuge. Things work really, really well here.”
Just the same: “You have to be on every day you come in. You can’t slip up for a week. You can’t slip up for a month. Because the overhead in a business like this will eat you alive.”
What’s his secret ingredient? His outstanding staff, which he stated without hesitation could find success absolutely anywhere they went. “You surround yourself with excellence and it just works.”
Another secret ingredient is his guiding ethos: “The business has to be secondary to the care.” In other words, care for the patients as well as care for the staff. “If you do all that right, it all comes together.”
In the meantime, Larry Napolitano pays it forward. He believes in giving back what you get. As such, for years, he has worked as a volunteer firefighter, and has also been a part of the Dental Society’s peer review quality assessment program. His main passion, however, in addition to Valerie and their son, Matthew, is his practice, along with its staff.
Now the business is 35 years old: A milestone for Milpitas. A milestone for the man.
The dentist emanates gratitude. And he tells it like it is: “I’m a very, very fortunate guy.”