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Utah’s first pediatric dentist is still working after 50 years

Dr. Chris Simonsen examines Henry Lopez, 2, in Bountiful on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Simonsen started his pediatric dentistry practice 50 years ago.
Dr. Chris Simonsen examines Henry Lopez, 2, in Bountiful on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Simonsen started his pediatric dentistry practice 50 years ago.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

BOUNTIFUL — When thinking of somewhere often dreaded by both adults and children, one of the first places that comes to mind might be a dentist’s office.

But in one Bountiful pediatric dentistry practice, the opposite is true.

Chris Simonsen is this year celebrating his 50th year as a dentist. In those five decades, he served in the Army during the Vietnam War, and worked on the teeth of hundreds of children — and later, many of those children’s children. A Utah Jazz legend once even sat in his chair.

”I love it. I enjoy what I do. And so when you enjoy what you do, you love what you do, you see the interaction with the kids, it kind of keeps you young,” Simonsen explained Monday in his office, which is designed specifically to put kids at ease.

Toys fill the counters and child-sized benches line the walls.

Chicken-themed artwork decorates different nooks and crannies, representing one of the dentist’s other passions. At home, he is a keeper of the birds.

Simonsen knew what he wanted to do from the age of 12.

”So, everyone thought I was strange because I would want to go to the dental office and see what they were doing. My friends thought that was weird,” he recalled.

He later studied speech pathology and audiology at Utah State University, because speech pathology helps one understand the mouth, Simonsen said. He minored in psychology and ceramics — ceramics, because he wanted to learn how to work with his hands.

Dr. Chris Simonsen laughs with a patient in Bountiful on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Simonsen started his pediatric dentistry practice 50 years ago.
Dr. Chris Simonsen laughs with a patient in Bountiful on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Simonsen started his pediatric dentistry practice 50 years ago.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

”Besides that, all the cute girls were in ceramics,” Simonsen quipped.

He then got accepted into Marquette University, where studying dentistry came with its own set of challenges because Simonsen is left-handed.

”It meant everything I had to do was opposite of what right-handed (people) have to do. So that made it more difficult, because I was on the wrong side of the chair, and that made it hard for the professors to try to help me, because they were right-handed. So it was more of a struggle, but we got through dental school really nicely.”

Originally from Brigham City, Simonsen met his wife, Karen, while he was away at dental school. He says she worked to put him through school.

After Simonsen served as a dentist for two years to soldiers preparing to deploy and returning from the Vietnam War, the family returned to Utah to set up practice. Children’s dentists at the time were called pedodontists, Simonsen said, but “I didn’t like that, so I decided I was going to be a pediatric dentist.”

He became the state’s first.

Simonsen worked with pediatricians at Primary Children’s Hospital to help them understand how pediatric dentistry works. Those doctors “sent me so many patients that I had to close my practice, because I had too many patients.”

”I want to have enough time that I get to know the child, and mom, if dad comes, I need to know them. And so that’s what makes it so fun, the interpersonal relationships,” Simonsen explained.

Dr. Chris Simonsen talks about teeth in Bountiful on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Simonsen started his pediatric dentistry practice 50 years ago.
Dr. Chris Simonsen talks about teeth in Bountiful on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Simonsen started his pediatric dentistry practice 50 years ago.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Now, about half his patients are second generation.

”We see some really, really wonderful families. Which makes it nice, right? When people find out that I’ve been practicing 50 years, and most dentists usually at 20, 25 are through. Dentistry’s a hard profession … you have to like what you do. Kids keep you young,” he said.

”It’s fun to watch them grow up, go from little ones to teenagers and then watch the drama that takes place with the teenagers and then watch them go through that and then go into college. … And finally they’ll get to the point where they’re too big.”

Simonsen used to treat Jazz star Karl Malone’s kids. Once, before the 1996 Olympics, Malone sat “right in this chair, draped over,” Simonsen said, pointing to a child-size dental chair in the office.

The basketball player brought his kids in for a checkup, but since his gums were hurting, “It’s like, ‘Oh, let’s take a look at it,’” Simonsen’s daughter, Krista Simonsen, said.

The dentist also at one time treated the crown prince of Saudi Arabia’s children while the family was visiting a Utah ski resort. Impressed by the care, the prince asked Simonsen to travel with his family for one year, offering him $1 million when Simonsen turned down the offer.

The reason?

Simonsen didn’t want to move his family of six children. And he had hundreds of patients in Utah to take care of.

In addition to serving his patients, Simonsen has also been heavily involved in and held leadership positions on the American Dental Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Utah Dental Association and several other organizations.

Still working 50 years later, Simonsen sees children three days a week and some weekends. About half of those patients are second generation, some of whom travel from out of state, as far away as Alaska, so the kids can see the beloved dentist of their parents’ childhood.

”It’s fun to watch them grow up and become moms,” Simonsen said. “They’ll come back and they’ll bring their child back and say, ‘See, hanging up here, this,’” he said, pointing at a painting.

Dr. Chris Simonsen and grandson Henry Felt find Felt’s photo on a patient tree in Bountiful on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Simonsen started his pediatric dentistry practice 50 years ago.
Dr. Chris Simonsen and grandson Henry Felt find Felt’s photo on a patient tree in Bountiful on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Simonsen started his pediatric dentistry practice 50 years ago.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

”And we try to move the pictures around, but a mom will come in and say, ‘When I was a kid, it was over here. Now it’s over here.’ So I’m surprised at how much they remember, as a child, what this office looked like. And now, as an adult, they point it out to their children.”

One dad, upon seeing the office no longer had the small water games as it once had, ordered some from Amazon and sent them to the dentist.

On a recent morning, a parade of kids went into the office smiling, playing with toys while they waited for their siblings to be treated. After taking a turn in the chair, the young patients visited a small window cut into the wall and selected a sticker and plaster figurine to paint later.

Dr. Chris Simonsen talks with patients Carter, Ellie and Beckham Easton after their examinations in Bountiful on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Simonsen started his pediatric dentistry practice 50 years ago.
Dr. Chris Simonsen talks with patients Carter, Ellie and Beckham Easton after their examinations in Bountiful on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Simonsen started his pediatric dentistry practice 50 years ago.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

”We love coming here. All my siblings bring all their kids here, so it’s a big family affair. And some of the kids call him grandpa, grandpa dentist,” said mom Ashley Black.

Kai Johnson, 8, explained why the dentist is so popular among kids. “I guess it’s, oh, he does his job well. He makes it go by fast as, basically, as well as he can do it.”

His mom, Amy Johnson, said, “It’s really quite impressive how well he knows not just the teeth but the whole pediatric growth of your child, so it’s just really nice. And he makes it comfortable for all of us and explains things really well. Makes it so you know what’s going on. And he charges reasonable rates.”

He’ll come in on off days and has even made home visits in emergencies, Johnson said.

”He’s so good with the kids. Just so patient, gets on their level,” said another mom, Adriel Jenkins. “He’s wonderful. Just so caring, and my kids love him. I don’t think my kids even knew they were getting a shot the few times they had to get a shot.”

Simonsen says he uses skills he learned as a psychology minor to help put kids at ease when they’re in the dental chair.

”How you read people’s faces, can tell if there’s a child, when they come in … I can get a pretty good idea how stressed they are, how worried they are about something, and I try to if I can’t somehow find out what they’re worried about before so I can alleviate that fear.”

Simonsen’s been able to continue working for so long because, while some dentists lose their hearing, he uses special, quieter tools.

And the dentist says he has no plans to retire.

”Everybody asks, we put a sign that says, ‘I’m not retiring.’ And then when we redid the carpet, then everybody knows.”

Email: aimlay@deseretnews.com Twitter: ashley_imlay