Flying into pharmacy (eyes wide shut)


From reader Bill Tarr comes the second article in Drug Topics' new series, Pathways through Pharmacy. While the first signs of his professional direction may have come as something of a surprise, he rose to the challenge and found that it gave him a vehicle for the good life.


Reader Bill Tarr gives us the second article in Drug Topics' new series, Pathways through Pharmacy. While the first signs of his professional direction may have come as something of a surprise, he rose to the challenge and found a vehicle for the good life.

I want to state right at the outset that I never wanted to be a pharmacist.

Pushing pills was not even in my field of vision when I graduated from Methodist College in 1967 with a BS degree in biology. My motivation was to follow in the footsteps of my father, a decorated B-17 pilot and POW in WWII, and fly planes for the United States Air Force.

Growing up, I built all the model planes and dreamed about going supersonic and maybe flying with the renowned Thunderbirds. My course was set!

I became a distinguished graduate of Officer Training School late in a very hot 1967 summer at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas and passed the Air Force qualifications test stating that I had at least enough rudimentary skills to participate in flight training.

I was transferred to Reese AFB, Lubbock, Texas, in the fall of 1967.  One year later, I had the “brown bars” of a second lieutenant on my shoulders, the silver wings on my chest, and all the good stuff was about to happen.


Hey, wait a minute

One undeniable truth about military service became abundantly apparent in the mid-1970s: The needs of the military far outweigh the needs of the individual.” So did its corollary: “Bad things roll downhill and accumulate at the bottom.” For me, it meant that the drawdown from Vietnam resulted in many pilots being either mustered out of the service or reassigned to a non-flying desk.

I was not in the mood to spend a hard-earned career managing field maintenance.

The answer to my looming problem came one night at the officer’s club. As we sat around discussing our futures over adult beverages of various sorts, a pilot friend of mine let slip that he had been “moonlighting” on weekends as a relief pharmacist. He claimed he was making more money in a couple of weekends than he made in an entire month from the USAF. I was intrigued.

Questions followed, discharge papers were submitted, and applications to pharmacy school (HOOK 'EM, HORNS) ensued. I was scared to death.


Ready or not

I matriculated at the University of Texas College of Pharmacy in Austin, Texas, in the fall of 1972, with the GI bill in one hand and the $50 semester’s tuition in the other. I had arrived!

Rude awakenings quickly followed. My first class in pharmaceutical chemistry consisted of a pop quiz to accurately identify a long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbon with several side branches. “WHAT…??!!” This was supposed to be a piece of cake!

A discussion with the class professor ensued, during which he advised me to look for another line or work. I declined. 

Despite this rather rough start (in Air Force vernacular, “an aborted takeoff”), I persevered, took full course loads year-round, and graduated with high honors two years later.


What happened next

As I reflect back on my pharmacy career, I couldn’t have guessed that I would:

· Work for a prominent member of the Texas State Board of Pharmacy,
· Fill in-patient pharmacy prescriptions,
· Make IVs and TPNs without the benefit of a computer,
· Run a pharmacy lunch counter while managing a retail drug store,
· Run a successful long-term-care consulting business,
· Return to the military,
· Finish a 20-year career as an Air Force pharmacist,
· Retire as a lieutenant colonel,
· Complete another 20-year career with a Fortune 500 grocery/pharmacy chain,
· End up running a student health-services pharmacy in the  University of North Carolina system.

And I married the love of my life, who kept it all together through all of this for 46 years. She enjoyed the journey but, alas, didn’t get the chance to reap the rewards.

To those who think pharmacy is merely one-dimensional, I say look around, put yourself out there, dream big, and heed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”

Bill Tarris pharmacy manager of Student Health Services, Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, N.C. E-mail him at

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