Rick Walton, Endodontics

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

The world map that hangs in Rick Walton’s home will never fall off the wall. How could it, with so many pins in it?

Walton, professor of endodontics in the University of Iowa College of Dentistry, has been all over the world. Some of the travel involves leisure, such as sailing trips to the Caribbean, but more often than not Walton is quite active during his journeys. He’s bicycled in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cuba; trekked to Everest base camp; driven a dog sled at latitudes north of the Arctic Circle; and run marathons on all seven continents.

Since coming to the University in 1983, Walton has developed an affinity for the Hawkeyes. He’s no stranger to the drama of Hawkeye football, as he was present for “The Catch” in Iowa’s 2005 Capital One Bowl victory and Marvin McNutt’s decisive touchdown as the clock struck zero in East Lansing, Mich., last season.

In 2006, the College of Dentistry expressed its appreciation for Walton’s teaching and research efforts by establishing a professorship in Walton’s name. It was the college’s first named professorship in honor of a current faculty member. “My first reaction was surprise, and I was very appreciative,” Walton says of the honor. “But it’s not just an honor for me. It indicates others’ loyalty and appreciation to the endodontics department, the college, and the University. It just happens to be established in my name.”

Walton spoke with fyi about what sparked his interest in dentistry, the changes he’s seen in the dental field during his career, and what he enjoys about running marathons (he completed his 19th in March).

What sparked your career interest?

My family dentist was very enthusiastic about dentistry. And during my early high school years I thought I wanted to go into medicine—my orthodontist convinced me that medicine was not a great career choice. He said medicine would come under more government control, and that insurance would get into medicine and muddle the whole picture. He said this in the 1950s. I was interested in health care in general, so I took the advice. I’ve never regretted the decision.

As a child, were you afraid of going to the dentist?

No, I wasn’t! My sister and I would always go together. Our family dentist was a friend of my father, so I knew if I acted up, he’d tell my father all about it. That prospect didn’t bother my sister, though. She would raise a big ruckus. The dentist was very old-fashioned. He didn’t believe in anesthesia for children under 12. I had some things done without anesthesia—I still remember that pain. But I wasn’t afraid to go.

A few of my favorite things…
Good German wine
James Michener; Patrick O’Brian; Bernard Cornwell’s novels featuring Richard Sharpe
Classical music
Action, war, and “whodunit” movies
College sports

How has dentistry changed over the years?

There is much more emphasis on prevention. When I was in dental school, we spent so much time on fixing things: filling cavities, extracting teeth, replacing missing teeth, making dentures. Now, we put the patients in a situation where they can care for their own dental health. We’re better able to prevent oral disease now, as the techniques are more biologically effective.

What have you enjoyed about working at the University?

I’ve enjoyed the best of both worlds at Iowa. The college is an outstanding professional academic institution, one that’s part of a world-class university in the Big Ten Conference. And living in Iowa City is wonderful, too—there’s so much to do, culturally and recreationally. Iowa City has the amenities of a metropolitan area. I’ve become a big Hawkeye fan. And now I’m married to an Iowa girl—they don’t come any better than Iowa girls!

What do you like most about teaching?

This isn’t a unique feeling among academics, but I really love to see the light bulb come on for a student who has been struggling. When it all comes together, it’s so satisfying. Our students rapidly progress from a low knowledge level to become competent practitioners—we see that in our clinical area all the time. That’s my greatest pleasure in academics.

Second, I love doing research. I’ve directed my research toward solving more clinical problems, those that will benefit patients and improve the practice of endodontics.

You’re an avid runner, with 19 marathons under your belt. What do you like most about running?

I really enjoy the physical aspects of running, and I like being outdoors. There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with running, whether you do it for 45 minutes or 26.2 miles. That’s most definitely true with a marathon, of course, doing something that not everyone can or will do.

I did my 19th marathon in March. I had stopped running marathons for a few years, but I decided to run a marathon after I turned 70. This particular marathon was being held in my small hometown in central Washington. It was nice to run my “after 70” marathon there. I wore my 50th high school reunion T-shirt as I ran. And I’m happy to report that I didn’t suffer too badly.

I’m going to try No. 20 soon. My daughter-in-law, who ran with me in Des Moines five years ago, plans to run another marathon and wants me to join her.

It’s no exaggeration that you are a globetrotter, thanks to your marathons, right?

I have run a marathon on every continent. As a result, I’ve had some interesting trips. I ran in a game park in Kenya; my Asia marathon took place in Siberia. I went to Antarctica to run, but a blizzard came in. So the marathon took place on the docked ship. We ran around the upper deck of the ship 422 times. Luckily we didn’t have to count the laps ourselves.