Alumni/Donors Stories Students

A century-old commencement program is found in California and returned to the School of Dentistry; its original owner was a 1923 dental grad who performed as a hypnotist in vaudeville shows8 min read

May 6, 2024

A century-old commencement program is found in California and returned to the School of Dentistry; its original owner was a 1923 dental grad who performed as a hypnotist in vaudeville shows8 min read

This week’s 2024 commencement at the School of Dentistry marks another milestone in the school’s 149-year history of educating dentists. The following story revolves around a dental school graduation a century ago.


The offer of a California man to return a 100-year-old artifact to the School of Dentistry was thoughtful and generous, but what makes the story extraordinary is the coincidental timing of his contact with the school.

In 2020, David Beaudin and his wife bought a property in Fallbrook, California, about 50 miles north of San Diego. In the process of moving into their new house, they found a box in the garage that contained picture albums, scrapbooks and a few other items left behind by the previous owners. One of the items caught Beaudin’s eye. It was a pristine copy of a small booklet with a leather-like cover that served as the commencement program for the 1923 University of Michigan “College of Dental Surgery,” as it was called then. He looked through the 10 pages and noticed that the graduating class list included Robert Franklin Deebach, who was the original owner of Beaudin’s new home.

Robert Deebach’s 1923 graduation photo.

Beaudin was fascinated by the piece of history that had an artistically embossed cover with the words “Michigan Dental 1923” surrounding the university seal. He set it aside with the intent of dealing with it later. It sat on top of a tool box in the garage until one day last May – Thursday, May 4, 2023 – when he rediscovered it and again browsed through it. He decided it might have historical value for the dental school, so he went online to the school’s website to find someone to contact.

He found the email address of Ray Aldrich, Director of Marketing and Communications, and he noticed something else. On the opening page of the website was a large photo and headline promoting the school’s 2023 commencement: “Celebration of the Class of 2023. Save the Date! Friday, May 5, 2023, at Noon.”

It took a moment for that to register, then Beaudin was struck by the coincidence of his timing. He was reaching out to the School of Dentistry about the 1923 commencement program on the day before the school’s 2023 commencement. Exactly a century had passed since the item he held in his hand was printed and used by Robert Franklin Deebach.

That evening, Beaudin sent Aldrich an email with several photos he snapped of pages inside the program. Beaudin asked if the dental school was interested in having it returned, and he noted the coincidence of graduation the next day marking the 100th anniversary of the Class of 1923.

The cover of the 1923 commencement booklet.

If the timing of the query was serendipitously perfect, so was the place where Aldrich first read the email. He was at Hill Auditorium on the morning of Friday, May 5, with other staff members preparing for the commencement ceremony. During a break, he used his cell phone to check his emails. Sitting in Hill Auditorium only an hour or so before the 2023 graduation, he opened the email from the stranger in California to find photos and details of the 1923 graduation, which had been held in the exact same place a century earlier.

“This is amazing!” Aldrich wrote back to Beaudin on the spot. “I am actually sitting at Hill Auditorium getting ready for commencement today right now. We would love to have the book.”

Beaudin replied: “Fun! I couldn’t believe when I looked up the school and it was 100 years ago! … Cheers to the grads today!”

Hill Auditorium, now a venerable venue with world-class acclaim, was completed in 1913 so it was only 10 years old when the dental school Class of 1923 participated in the U-M commencement exercises there. In those years, the dental school did not have its own graduation at Hill as it does now; instead, U-M’s various schools and colleges all participated in the same university-wide graduation at Hill.

The 1923 program lists 133 dental graduates, similar to the current-day classes of about 130. A schedule of “Graduation Week” events starts on Thursday with alumni meetings, a senior girls drama performance, a “Senior Promenade,” two U-M baseball games and a baccalaureate address by U-M President Marion Burton leading up to commencement on Monday, June 18. The first page of the program features a large photo of dental school dean Marcus Ward, followed by the names of the dental faculty and graduating students, class officers and several senior class committees, including Robert Deebach as chair of the Auditing Committee.

Robert Franklin Deebach is listed among the 1923 graduates.

Who was Robert Deebach and how did his 1923 dental school commencement program end up in California? Beaudin learned a few things during the process of buying his new home and he has done a bit of sleuthing online with limited success. His findings and additional research show that Deebach seems to have started his dental career in Detroit. The monthly Michigan State Dental Society Bulletin in July 1923 includes Deebach among the dentists who had recently earned their state dental license. It lists him as working for a dentist at the Empire Building in Detroit.

In 1938, Deebach attended the 15-year reunion of the dental school Class of 1923, standing tall in the back row of the class photo of “the ’23 Dents” published by the Michigan Alumnus. He was listed as residing in Dayton, Ohio.

At that dental school reunion, it seems likely Deebach’s classmates would have asked him if he was still performing as a hypnotist. In his first years in dental school, near the end of 1920 and the summer of 1921, he was a featured performer for at least three campus variety shows that were promoted by articles in the Michigan Daily, the campus newspaper. Publicity for one of two “Spotlight Vaudeville” shows said Deebach would demonstrate “complete control of the actions and sensations of his subject” during a hypnotic act. It said Deebach planned to keep 15 or 20 volunteers from the audience under his influence at one time. Another student would assist in demonstrating “more complete stages of hypnotism.” In a reference suggesting Deebach had been in the military during World War I, the student paper reported: “Deebach has had several years experience in presenting hypnotic acts in vaudeville in the West. During the war he gave many demonstrations in army camps, notably in Arizona, in Washington and at Camp Sheridan,” the latter likely referencing an Ohio National Guard training site in Montgomery, Alabama.

The program contains an engraving of what the “College of Dental Surgery” building looked like along North University Avenue in 1923. The building was torn down when the current building was finished in 1971.

Real estate records show Deebach would have been retirement age when he sold his property in Dayton in 1965. That same year Deebach built a house in Fallbrook, California, on a nine-acre avocado farm. Fallbrook, which calls itself the “Avocado Capital of the World,” is in a relatively rural area on the east side of Camp Pendleton, the U.S. Marine Corp base. Deebach lived there only five years until his death in 1970. His wife owned the property until her death in 1994, then it was the home of the couple’s daughter and her family until the daughter’s death in 2020. Beaudin and his wife bought the property from the estate of Deebach’s daughter.

Beaudin said he’s glad he saved the program, which will be added to the collection of artifacts at the school’s Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry. “It may mean something to somebody else somewhere down the line,” he said. “It’s better than tossing it on the trash heap.”


The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral healthcare education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at:  Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at, or (734) 615-1971.