By Michelle Neyland
I grew up thinking that a trip to the dentist meant a time for play.
I would sit in the waiting room, pushing small wooden blocks along twisting wire tracks. When it was my turn and I settled into the dentist’s chair, Dr. Frank D’Aquila (or Dr. Frank, as we all called him) sat at my side, a grandfatherly figure with his bright white hair and round glasses. He spoke in a gentle banter, telling stories and jokes in a lilting Southern accent, pausing occasionally to smile and make sure I understood. He folded an origami boat out of a yellow sticky note, took out his pen, and drew a little waving person on it with a flourish before handing it to me. He blew bubbles that floated and winked around in the natural light of his office. He was so skilled at captivating children that I never quite remember him doing anything to my teeth, save the taste of the bubble gum fluoride treatment.
When he read years later that I was accepted to a local magnet school, he sent me a letter in the mail. He had photocopied a page from the dictionary and circled the word “joyful,” noting that it was how he felt when he heard the news. And he didn’t just do this for me — whenever one of his patients did notably well in sports or academics, he would cut out the newspaper article, add his personal congratulations, and mail it to their home. When I was in college trying to figure out job ideas, he met me at the Four Provinces to tell me about his career in pediatric dentistry.
His niece, Christy D’Aquila, describes Frank as artistic, spiritual, and passionate about the many topics featured in his collections of books, records, photography and homemade greeting cards.
“[He loved] opera, cooking, history, Charlie Brown and the Far Side, Catholicism, poetry, music, and anything local to Falls Church,” she said.
Dr. Frank moved to Falls Church in 1978, after spending his youth in Mississippi, serving in the Navy during the Korean War, and graduating from Marquette University Dental School in Milwaukee, WI. He quickly became involved in this community, as a generous and witty friend and neighbor, an active parishioner at St. James Catholic Church, and as a volunteer docent and historical reenactor.
Midge Wang remembers how on one of his long walks around the city, Dr. Frank once encountered her with fellow members of the Victorian Society selling peanuts and dressed in full period costume to raise funds for the group.
“He took pictures of us and then decided to join — he became the group photographer and got all the outfits the gentlemen wore and did a lot of living history with us. He used to chuckle and say that life was never the same after that,” she said.
Come Halloween, he would host a gathering for the neighborhood children and tell stories, broadcasting spooky music from his driveway on Riley Street.
“He was a real star over on Riley Street,” said Wang. “On Halloween, he would have a charcoal fire and put on a witch’s costume and play the witch…and, he would give the children toothbrushes because he was a pediatric dentist.”
After retirement, he shared his skills as a dynamic storyteller and puppeteer with the young and old alike. Dr. Frank donated significant time to volunteer causes, hosting tea parties for residents at local retirement and nursing homes and chatting with them about their childhoods. He didn’t have any local family, so as he grew older, his neighbors and friends began to look out for him. I often saw him walking slowly around town, on his way to church or the grocery store or to brunch with a neighbor.
The last time I visited him, and before he moved closer to family for full-time nursing care, I brought my 3-year-old son along and Dr. Frank lit up. He reached for a handmade stuffed bear and pretended to talk as the bear, making my son smile. He finished off the presentation with a mini puppet show.
“He was always sharing himself with others. He had a wonderful sense of humor,” said Wang.
Frank D’Aquila, a Falls Church citizen for 40 years, was born at home on July 13, 1929 in Fort Adams, Mississippi and passed away on Feb. 23, 2019 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
To contribute funds for a bench in Falls Church in memory of Dr. Frank D’Aquila, please mail a check made out to “Michelle Neyland” by March 31, 2019 with “Dr. Frank D’Aquila Bench” in the memo line to: 800 W. Broad St., P.O. Box 6939, Falls Church, VA 22040.