An oral surgeon who loved to fly planes, Dr. Donald A. Romeo was thrilled to volunteer for the Flying Dentists Association’s mission trips to remote, poor regions in Honduras.
“We pulled out about 10,000 teeth last year, and we expect it to be no different this year,” Dr. Romeo told the Globe in 1981.
The dentists worked in a makeshift office, and “last year we had to throw the dogs and pigs out of the wooden building when we started work for the day,” he recalled while preparing to pilot his Piper on the 15-hour flight from Norwood to Honduras. “The people sit in a regular kitchen chair and lean their heads back against the wall. The next person in line holds the flashlight for you.”
Combining excitement and humanitarianism was the norm in Dr. Romeo. His practice, which included serving as chief of oral surgery at Norwood Hospital, provided one-of-a-kind experiences, such as the time he went to a junkyard to retrieve teeth from the floor of a wrecked vehicle before performing surgery on his patient.
Dr. Romeo, who practiced dentistry in Norwood for 35 years before retiring to Cape Cod and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., died at 78 of leukemia Nov. 23 in his Fort Lauderdale home.
“He was very warm and genuine, and loving and compassionate,” said his wife, Caryl of Fort Lauderdale and East Dennis. “He was always smiling.”
Dr. Romeo learned to fly at a young age, according to his wife, whom he began dating in the 1970s. They wed in 1988.
As a dentist, Dr. Romeo found that many peers shared his interest in aviation. He flew his plane to dental conventions and functions around the country, and at one gathering, someone suggested that he join the Flying Dentists Association.
The chapter through which he volunteered saw hundreds of patients during its annual, weeklong trip to Honduras.
“These people are in pain,” he told the Globe. “It’s nothing to see a line of 100 people of all ages waiting to see us. They come from the mountain villages all around.”
The volunteer dentists “see a lot of swollen faces,” he added. “We do mainly extractions. We don’t have time to do restoration work. These people’s main diet is sugar cane and corn, which just rots their teeth. Ninety percent have all their teeth out before they’re 16.”
Much to Dr. Romeo’s disappointment, the trips eventually ended because of complications involving the Honduran government, according to his wife, who said that he worked with indigent patients at home, too.
“He was just that kind of oral surgeon, anyway,” she said. “If someone couldn’t pay, he said, ‘Oh, well, no problem.’ ”
Dr. Romeo was born and grew up in North Adams, where he graduated from Drury High Schoolin 1952.
Four years later, he received a bachelor’s degree from St. Anselm’s Collegein Manchester, N.H., then a doctor of dental surgery degree from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry in 1962.
He completed a yearlong residency at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., the following year. Dr. Romeo also took courses in oral pathology and oral surgery in Washington, D.C., before beginning studies at Boston University’s Dental School in 1964.
He opened a private practice in Norwood in 1965.
Through his work as Norwood Hospital’s chief of oral surgery, Dr. Romeo received some unusual assignments, such as operating on Albert DeSalvo, who had confessed to being the Boston Strangler.
In 2000, Dr. Romeo and his wife retired and began dividing time between a house on the beach in East Dennis and one in South Florida, where many of their friends had relocated.
Retirement allowed Dr. Romeo to devote more time to his many passions. He biked and walked, was an avid photographer, and enjoyed touring the roads with his wife in their Fly Yellow Ferrari or white convertible Rolls-Royce Corniche. He had a knack for gardening that enabled him to maintain a carpetlike green lawn on Cape, and a flourishing vegetable garden of potted plants in Fort Lauderdale “where you can’t grow anything,” his wife said.
Above all, though, he loved to cook and entertain and was known for his hospitality. No sooner would he answer the door than he would ask guests, “Can I get you anything?”
“He loved to feed people,” his wife said. “It would put a smile on his face to get you a bowl of spaghetti.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Romeo leaves a son, William of Sudbury and Orleans; a daughter, Jill DiTommaso of Sandwich; and four grandchildren.
A service has been held, and burial was in East Dennis.
At his funeral on Nov. 30, he was honored by two organizations of which he was particularly proud to be a member, the Quiet Birdmen and the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts.
Dr. Romeo’s wife said 22 Ancients attended his funeral in full dress uniform, and the Quiet Birdmen presented her with his wings.