This year’s 13th annual JROTC Way to Happiness Scholarship competition will begin on a sad and sorrowful note. Its Founder and Benefactor, Dr. Juan Villarreal, CEO and Founder of Harlingen Family Dentistry, with offices in Austin and five Rio Grande Valley locations, unexpectedly passed away on December 29, 2019. He was 66 years old.

The JROTC Way to Happiness Scholarship program for High School seniors throughout the Rio Grande Valley was the pinnacle of Dr. Villarreal’s lifetime of many community and public service undertakings. The JROTC scholarship competition highlighted Dr. Villarreal’s endeavor to instill in the lives and in the aspirations of the Valley’s young and promising High School students, regardless of economic status, color, race, religion or creed, the knowledge that, like him, they too are strong and resilient, and they too can succeed at whatever they set their mind on.

Toward this end, Dr. Villarreal was a believer in education and in teaching young people the moral and ethical values and ideals required to build and maintain the stamina and fortitude necessary to persevere and succeed in life. Because of Dr. Villarreal’s efforts, JROTC scholarship recipients entered their new phase of life after High School with the confidence and empowerment to meet their new challenges with conviction and composure.

Dr. Villarreal not only inspired young people, but he motivated and roused the conscience of community leaders, educators and “movers and shakers” throughout the Valley, to join him in giving back to the very communities that had enriched and enhanced their personal and professional lives. It was evident to everyone who met or worked with Dr. Villarreal, that the one thing that remained true throughout his long and winding journey, was his deep commitment to give back to his community.

Awards and accolades were never Dr. Villarreal’s goal. But he received gracious validation, recognition and appreciation by his friends, his neighbors and his peers for his tireless efforts and financial contributions to school and community programs. For Dr. Villarreal, doing good works and making economic opportunities available and enabling people from all walks of life to find a new direction and path to personal success came naturally.

Dr. Villarreal worked diligently with local business and community leaders as President of the Harlingen Economic Development Board on projects and issues benefitting Rio Grande Valley communities, including bringing about the establishment of the first medical school in the Rio Grande Valley – the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, located in Harlingen.

Throughout his personal life and his community involvement, Dr. Villarreal never left far behind the focus of his vocation – treating, educating, advocating for, and leading the fight for the elimination of oral health disparities in the Hispanic community – his community. And, as President of the Hispanic Dental Association, he helped to lead and make an impact on the oral health dilemma that faced many children and adults alike in the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic community. It was also during this period in his life that he established the Juan D. Villarreal Scholarship Program to help support promising dental, dental hygiene and dental lab students pursue their academic training -- a program that Dr. Villarreal supported and endowed with both his time and his financial sponsorship.

During his professional lifetime, Dr. Villarreal had the privilege of working alongside highly renowned medical professionals, state and federal agencies and politicians, as well as community leaders and activists, all sharing the same objective – the improvement and development of health programs and facilities benefiting local communities, but especially children of all ages. In 2001, he was appointed by Governor Rick Perry to the Texas Board of Dental Examiners, tasked with regulating the practice of dentistry in the State of Texas. He served on the Board for approximately 7 years in various capacities, including General Secretary, Chair of the Enforcement Committee, and member of the Legislative Committee.

Because of his efforts to help promote and support social programs, educational endeavors, preventative and constructive health workshops and free clinic evaluations and procedures, as well as esteem and character-building classes and seminars, Dr. Villarreal has seen the smiles, the tears of joy and the look of utter astonishment and wonder on the faces of many boys and girls. It is that look, that smile, those tears of gratitude that told Dr. Villarreal, and those who worked by his side, two things -- there is hope, and together can each help make the world a better place.

Additionally, Dr. Villarreal for years supported and generously donated time and money to Toys for Tots, the World Literacy Crusade, the Way to Happiness Campaign, the Boy Scouts of America—Friends of Scouting Program, the Harlingen Youth Leadership Program, and of course the Salvation Army Harlingen Corps, to name just a few of the many outstanding organizations that have helped to make our communities come together.

Only recently, Dr. Villarreal was nominated by the Rio Grande Valley Dental Society for the prestigious Texas Academy of General Dentistry’s Texas Dentist of the Year Award. He was also the recipient of the U.S. Business Administration’s Lower Rio Grande Valley District Entrepreneurial Success Award, which recognized his service to the community and his dental practice’s success and impact on the community. And, last year, he received two additional honors. One was his induction into the Rotary Club of Harlingen’s Walk of Fame, in recognition of his activism and engagement in his beloved community. The second was his election as President of the Rio Grande Valley Dental Association, a further recognition by his peers of his professionalism, his leadership and his recognized geniality towards everyone he encounters in his personal and professional life.

One important member of Dr. Villarreal’s organization is Gail Thomason, a retired middle school teacher. Ms. Thomason met Dr. Villarreal in 1992 when Dr. Villarreal sponsored the very first nation-wide 'Set a Good Example Contest' for schools. Her Coakley Middle School students entered the competition that year and won the $5,000 prize.

On her retirement from teaching in 2000, Ms. Thomason joined Dr. Villarreal’s dental practice as a spokeswoman and community liaison to help promote the importance of dental health, especially for children, among other programs. During that time, various scholarships for graduating high school seniors, as well as various other scholarships and sponsorships aimed at encouraging youth to achieve their potential, were created and funded by Dr. Villarreal and his organization.

Among those programs, was Dr. Villarreal’s highly-motivated JROTC (or Junior Reserve Officer’s Trailing Corps) Way to Happiness Scholarship competition. Dr. Villarreal partnered with the JROTC, a federal program sponsored by the United States Armed Forces in high schools and some middle schools, in teaching youngsters leadership, self-awareness and the virtues and values for success.

Ms. Thomason stated how Dr. Villarreal’s personal military background played an important role in his embracement of the JROTC program and its military core values concept of Duty, Honor, Loyalty, Courage, Commitment, Integrity, Respect and Selflessness – concepts Dr. Villarreal believed integral in building a strong and solid foundation in the lives and futures of young cadets and future Valley builders and leaders. Some of the “Way to Happiness Precepts” espoused by the JROTC program that Dr. Villarreal strongly believed in and highlighted in the scholarship competition are:

Take care of yourself Be temperate Don’t be promiscuous Love and help children Honor and help your parents Set a good example Seek to live with the truth Don’t do anything illegal Be worthy of trust Fulfill your obligations Be Industrious Respect the religious beliefs of others Flourish and proper  

This year’s 13th annual scholarship competition will award $6,000 to $10,000 in scholarships to deserving graduating students. Like in the past, candidates will enjoy a lunch with military generals, business leaders, lawyers and other professionals. Retired Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, now CEO of Optech Enterprises Solutions, has been the lead judge for the last several years.

Dr. Villarreal’s passing impacted many people in all walks of life, including those who participated in his JROTC scholarship competition program. Some of the judges who experienced the passion, enthusiasm and emotion of meeting and listening to the students vying for scholarships, expressed their sadness and sorrow at Dr. Villarreal’s sudden passing, including:

James A. Troia, Lt. Colonel (Ret), Senior Army JROTC Instructor at HM King High School remembers Dr. Villarreal: “His scholarship program allowed our cadets to be better citizens, instilled service to the nation, inspired personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment. Our cadets and I will personally miss him.”

Retired Master Sergeant Armando R. Tsukano, USAF Air force JROTC Aerospace Science Instructor at Harlingen High School South, stated, “His creation of the Way to Happiness Scholarship for JROTC is how he lived. He shared what he had with everyone. The impact made to all who knew him, especially the recipients of the scholarships, great or small, will live on long beyond our existence.”

Retired Major David Arjona, USMC, Senior Naval Science Instructor, Los Fresnos High School, Los Fresnos Consolidated Independent School District: “Dr. Villareal's prior service experience in the U.S. Army instilled in him the values of selfless devotion and serving others. His annual sponsorship of the Scholarship program for ‘The Way to Happiness’ and living with the 21 precepts supported all the JROTC units in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Retired Capt. Rual Munguia, Senior Army Instructor, Harlingen High School and McAllen High School: “. . . the Way to Happiness Scholarships . . . was not just a wonderful and thoughtful donation that was given to them. [Cadets] earned the scholarships by researching, presenting, and experiencing a wholesome competition. . . . And amazingly enough, those cadets learned that with an effort to compete and learn how to manage their energy and focus they can achieve anything they put their minds on.”

(Ret) Master Sgt. Juan Gonzales, Senior Army Instructor Harlingen High School JROTC: “[Dr. Villarreal’s] financial help gave my cadets the opportunity to start their educational dream of completing a degree.”

Retired Lt. Colonel Clifford F. Moriarty, USAF, SASI, AFJROTC TX-961: “We certainly appreciate what Dr Juan D. Villarreal and Harlingen Family Dentistry have done in their Way to Happiness JROTC College scholarship for the last 12 years. . . . Everyone of our college scholarship recipients certainly needed this scholarship to attend a college of their choice (mostly TSTC - one Texas A&M). Dr Villareal had a great vision . . . .”

Cpt. Michael W. Roberson, Company Commander, Rio Grande Recruiting Company US Army Recruiting Battalion San Antonio: “Many organizations talk about doing good in the community, but Dr. Villarreal dedicated time and resources, made possible by his successful practice, to truly give back to his hometown’s youth. . . . [and gave] JROTC cadets an opportunity to develop professional life skills and the opportunity for scholarships for continued education. The program not only positively influenced the JROTC cadets, it also impacted the attendees and judges, as it gave all the opportunity to see the potential in the next generation of civilian and military leaders. I believe every student that participated in the program left the program more confident and with a wealth of life skills for healthier living. . . .”

Al Garcia, Sergeant, US Army, Vietnam Combat Journalist and Published Writer: “. . . Dr. Villarreal was a visionary and perceptive man, who saw the Valley’s growth and promise in the potential and capabilities of its youth. And it was his intensity, tenacity, and luminous spark of humanity, that encouraged him to reach out and touch the lives of students and citizens throughout the Valley. He not only inspired young people with his compassion and his philanthropy, but with his personal life story of humility and modest beginnings here in the Valley. And because of his upbringing, experiences in life, and setbacks and achievements, he was determined to leave behind a better world, by mentoring and passing forward learned and inherited qualities, values, traits and behavior that helped him achieve the successes in his life. He was determined to give back through his efforts to help promote the teaching of ethics and moral virtues through character-building and empowerment guidance and stewardship. . . and in the process inspired me and others of my generation, to become involved in the lives and futures of the next great generation.”

Dr. Villarreal’s legacy will endure, as will the JROTC Way to Happiness Scholarship competition, with the support and patronage of those individuals who have given of their time and of themselves in the past, and with the assistance of communities, schools and organizations championing and advocating the virtues and values that Dr. Villarreal embraced in life.