Walter Hall | Meditations on a Mentor’s Life

By Eric K. Curtis, DDS, MA

Dr. Walter Hall, my parents’ next-door neighbor in their Mercer Island apartment complex—long before Mercer Island became upscale—was the first person of neither family nor obstetric staff origin to welcome me into this world. Walter and my dad, Dr. Kay Curtis, were both new-grad dental interns serving out a Korean War draft deferral obligation at the U.S. Public Health Service hospital in Seattle where I was born in 1958.

Walter hailed from Quincy, Massachusetts, and he always retained a whiff of a Boston accent, rounding his vowels through clenched teeth, as well as what I thought must be a Boston demeanor—formal, reserved and slightly condescending.

My folks soon took me to Port Angeles, Washington, where the Public Health Service assigned my dad to a dental clinic at a U.S. Coast Guard air station, while Walter shipped out to a mobile dental unit in Traverse, Michigan. Walter, who returned to the University of Washington in 1960 to complete a periodontics program, kept in touch. I grew up reading the elaborate Christmas letters Walter’s wife Fran sent every year, and I marveled at the Hall family travels, vacations here and lectures there, weeks spent in the French countryside, an audience with the Pope right inside the Vatican—travels that I never, not in a million years, would have guessed I would one day share.

Walter went into academics, first at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, then back to Washington, and finally, in 1972, to University of the Pacific, and he moved his wife Fran and their two small boys into the Tiburon home where he would live the rest of his life. Walter was a thoughtful scholar who conducted active research in his interest area of pure mucogingival problems, and, practical and sensitive soul, he also practiced periodontics in the faculty practice. He was active in the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Periodontology (AAP), serving on a variety of committees and chairing the AAP’s 1985 annual meeting. Walter ran monthly Academy of General Dentistry-sponsored study clubs in San Jose, California, for 20 years, and lectured as far away as Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland, Australia and Japan.

When I landed in dental school at Pacific in 1982, my dad duly instructed me to look up Dr. Hall. Walter invited me over to his house for dinner—I had to borrow my classmate Brent Curtis’s VW bug to get across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin—and sat me next to a young woman who introduced herself as probably the only person in America named Metonkabama, although everyone called her Tonka. Pursuing a post-baccalaureate program in education at San Francisco State University, Tonka also worked for Fran on a high school student exchange program. When Tonka and I married in 1985, the Halls sat in the front pews.

Walter Hall, as some 4,000 dental students at Pacific will be able to recall, was a dull, dry lecturer, far more focused on the content of his specialty than igniting that content with the kind of enthusiasm that might spark the imagination of a young, distracted audience trapped in a darkened room before lunch. But Walter enjoyed his student interactions, as much as a painfully reticent introvert can enjoy any social exchange, and he took pride in being a mentor. He enjoyed making introductions and connections, counseling and advising, and matching students to pursuits where he thought they could excel.

The soul of subtlety, Walter’s mild manner stood in stark contrast to the bold operating style of his wife. Hearing from Tonka that I was scrambling to find fixed prosthodontic patients, Fran immediately produced an exchange student from Belgium named Herman, who happened to be missing a first molar. I sequestered Herman in my apartment for a week, feeding him peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and pizza while I labored to make him the careful three-quarter veneer, three-unit bridge I needed to graduate.

When Walter saw I like to draw, he hired me to generate line illustrations for his next two textbooks. He was mildly disappointed when I didn’t show much interest in perio (my classmate Damon Don responded more readily to that call), but he knew I loved Spain, as he did. So when I graduated, he lobbied to secure me a position at a spot as close to the Spanish border as he could find. I landed at the dental polyclinic of the university hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland, a city spread across hills from which, on a clear day, we could see across Lac Leman to the chiseled white peaks of Mont Blanc. Our son Tristan was born in the hospital and, with both his younger sisters, grew up calling the man ultimately responsible for his infant passport Uncle Walter.

The Halls visited us in Switzerland, and we visited them three times at the northeastern Spanish beach town of Platja d’Aro when Walter took sabbaticals on Catalonia’s Costa Brava. We also met up with the Halls over the years in San Diego, Lake Tahoe, Santa Barbara, Boston and Maui, and we went to see them often at their mountaintop home in Tiburon. Tonka and I attended the Halls’ 25th wedding anniversary in a Spanish cathedral, and a quarter-century later, they helped host ours in China Cabin, the quirky, gilded saloon of a 19th century trans-Pacific postal steamer now set on pilings at the Belvedere shoreline of San Francisco Bay.

Walter Hall had his idiosyncrasies. Although his professional persona was solidly that of scientist, he harbored the dark, acerbic views about former biology undergraduates that one might expect of a Cornell history major, once telling me flatly as he flipped through a volume of Berthold Brecht plays—or maybe it was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum—that dentists are illiterate. (Lest the reader dismiss Walter as an unalloyed Europhile, I’ll point out that he was also a big fan of the Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s magical realist novels.)

[pullquote]He showed me that no other accomplishment trumps the achievement of successful human relationships.[/pullquote]

Walter loved opera, loved his season tickets at the San Francisco Opera, loved blasting La Boheme, or anything sung by Pavarotti, on his boom box while pruning his orchids. A notorious night owl, Walter claimed he could function comfortably on only two or three hours of sleep each night. As if to prove the point, he loved to stay up late talking. Although his vocal range never broke much above a low mutter, he could hold forth into the wee hours, glass of red wine at hand, the evening’s companions straining to hear, on a variety of arcane subjects, as comfortable with Tolstoy’s plot twists as he was with government policies on disabilities, about which his two handicapped boys made him passionate.

When Walter died from complications of pancreatic cancer near midnight on November 30, my daughter Anica’s birthday, a slice of my own history went with him. I looked over his life on paper, curriculum vitae well stocked with faculty appointments, research, professional service and publications, as I prepared an obituary for the San Francisco Chronicle. When I recounted the whole process to one of my patients, a judge, he asked me, “What are you learning from studying Walter Hall’s life?”

I reflected on that question for several days before I concluded that Walter’s turn on Earth resonated with the value of planning, the rewards of reliability, the fulfillment in fulfilling duties and the stimulation of confronting other cultures. His sensibilities also reflected just how deeply literature enlivens a person’s outlook. Most important, Walter demonstrated that mentoring produces some of life’s deepest satisfactions. He showed me that no other accomplishment trumps the achievement of successful human relationships.

Fran reports that one of Walter’s most joyful moments came when a group of former protégés visited him during the October 2014 AAP meeting in San Francisco. He glowed, she says, at the thought that he had in some way helped each embark on a successful path. I’ll bet Walter’s visitors, as they sat around the dining room table, had to lean forward to catch what their old mentor was saying. This much is certain: They talked late into the night.

Eric K. Curtis ’85, of Safford, Arizona, is a contributor to Contact Point and is the author of A Century of Smiles, a historical book covering the dental school’s first 100 years.