Ernest James Colvin, who rose from humble beginnings to build a dentistry practice in Park Heights, died of complications from a stroke Jan. 20, his 84th birthday.
Dr. Colvin, born the son of sharecroppers in Rock Hill, S.C., began his practice in the Park Heights neighborhood in Baltimore after getting his doctorate in dentistry from Howard University in 1968. Colvin was self-disciplined and positioned himself as a community leader at a time when there were few African-American dentists in Baltimore, his daughter said.
"As one of the first African-American dentists, he was doing more than just filling a role, he was an example to the community for what the community could strive to be," said Christina Sykes, his daughter. "And also a symbol of care, of what health care, good dental care could mean to a community. He was a standard for the care he provided … at a time when there weren't as many role models as there are today."
Colvin later opened up another office in the Govans neighborhood. When he retired in 2013, after about 50 years in practice, he told the Baltimore Times newspaper that "dentistry suited my personality."
"I knew what I wanted to do, and I was in charge," Colvin told the newspaper. "I loved seeing patients."
According to his sister, Ola Jackson, Colvin refused to put gold on his patients' teeth because he believed it would cause decay. Jackson said he enjoyed serving the community and would sometimes do work for free for poorer patients.
"He was such a visionary," his sister said. "We came from a southern cotton farming area as children, and we had a vision of being more and being better, and he fulfilled that."
Ms. Sykes said her father was self-disciplined and competitive, but sought to inspire people — the people who worked in his dentistry practice, his friends and family, even patients — in a non-judgmental way. "He wouldn't preach," she said.
Dr. Colvin, a Morgan State University graduate, developed a love for horses in college while working at the race track in Charles Town, W.Va. He later became the first black chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, where he served two terms as chair and as a board member. He owned several horses and stables, including "Circle C" in Howard County, and wouldn't miss a race at Pimlico Race Course.
His family said Dr. Colvin had a fiercely competitive nature that included playing tennis daily. He was active in several fantasy football leagues and, as a fan of the Baltimore Ravens, spent many Sundays watching football on television or attending a game. He also enjoyed trips to Las Vegas, where he would often play craps at Caesars Palace, Ms. Sykes said. His wife, Antonia "Toni" Colvin, whom he married in 2007, grew to love trips to Las Vegas as well, according to the family.
As a child, his competitive nature in the classroom and while playing football for his high school earned him the nickname "Right Answer," Ms. Sykes said.
Dr. Colvin joined Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity while at Morgan and remained a devoted alumnus, never missing a homecoming, his family said. He was a member of the alumni chapter of the fraternity, as well as a member of the Kappa Hellians of Baltimore, a social club.
In high school, Dr. Colvin, who had been brought up as a Southern Baptist, converted to Catholicism. He was a member of St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore, and after moving to Glenwood in Howard County, became a member of St. Louis Parish in Clarksville.
Ms. Sykes said her father "lived his life with vigor" and "held a high level of moral and ethical standards" in his dentistry practice and his life. Though he died on his birthday, the family held a celebration for him the day before he died.
"He was a force of nature," Ms. Sykes said.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday at Saint Louis Parish, 12500 Clarksville Pike, Clarksville.
Dr. Colvin is survived by his wife, Toni Colvin; son Ernest James "Jimmy" Colvin II; daughter Christina Sykes; granddaughters Morgan and Taylor; sisters Ola Jackson and Evelyn Barnes; sisters-in-law Carolyn Colvin and Inell Colvin; and nieces and nephews.