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Hal Christensen, ‘dentistry in Washington’ 1957-1985

When he hired me, Hal Christensen said he needed a writer to describe the American Dental Association’s activities in the nation’s capital, of which he was the greater part as I was to learn, and that I must leave deadline-a-minute journalism and report to the ADA Washington Office May 1, 1978.

Image: Hal Christensen
Hal Christensen

He didn’t tell me I’d have to put up with his cornball humor, his Monday morning off-key “Hail to the Redskins, hail victory” bluster, which might or might not describe his beloved football team’s recent performance, which he no doubt witnessed as a season ticket holder unless he had offered you his seat on a given Sunday, or his “George Washington Bridge” doggerel doggedly babbled to “Sesame Street” sing-along diction if not tone when mood struck and audience presented.

Though he may have lacked the finesse of a modern-day BlackBerry lobbyist, Hal defined the ADA in Washington with canny corridor smarts in the lobbying of lawmakers during some 28 years of unprecedented expansion of government health care activity during the 1960s and ‘70s. “In short, he has been dentistry in Washington, and this profession is the better for it,” said Thomas J. Ginley, Ph.D., Association executive director when Hal retired in 1985.

Hal Merrill Christensen, born Jan. 31, 1926, in Richfield, Utah, passed away April 18, 2012, in Bountiful, Utah. For 40 years, including his 1957-1985 ADA Washington Office years, he and his family lived in nearby Chevy Chase, Md. Their roots were in Beaver, Utah, and Hal and his wife, Mary, would return to Beaver in 2002.

Hal Christensen, an attorney, joined the Association in 1957 as assistant secretary of what was then the Council on Legislation, became council secretary in 1960 and in 1961 was named Washington counsel of the American Dental Association.

After undergraduate training at the University of Utah, he received his law degree from the Washington College of Law, American University, and was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and courts of Illinois, Utah and the District of Columbia. He was a member of the American Bar Association. Before joining the American Dental Association staff, he was associate counsel to the subcommittee on legal and monetary affairs of the Committee on Government Operation, U.S. House of Representatives. 

“Hal’s efforts are associated with development of the National Institute of Dental Research (now National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research), Medicaid coverage of dental care for needy children and Medicare reimbursement for covered services provided by dentists, self-employed pension plans, opposition to taxes on health benefits and so many other pieces of legislation important to the profession and the oral health of Americans they are too numerous to list,” Dr. Ginley said on Hal’s retirement.

His honors and encomiums are numerous as well, honorary ADA membership, American College of Dentists fellow, honorary fellow International College of Dentists, honorary member American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, honorary membership in several state and affiliated dental organizations, an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Georgetown University where he gave the 1983 commencement address to dental school graduates and, on his retirement, bipartisan salutes from members of Congress to “a great representative of the dental profession,” “a beacon of leadership for all of us” and “a private-sector employee who has dedicated much of his life to work on the public’s behalf.”   

I knew Hal as friend, employer, raconteur, confidante and guru and in recent years Cindy Simms, administrative services director for the ADA Division of Government and Public Affairs office in Washington, D.C., and I would join Hal and Mary for lunch on their occasional returns to the D.C. area, in the way of colleagues who stay in touch across the distances of life. “I greatly admired ‘Mr. C’ and will miss him,” said Ms. Simms.

Honored by profession, honored in Congress, esteemed by colleagues and loved by and loving of family, Hal Christensen couldn’t carry a tune but that didn’t keep him from singing.

Services will be held April 28 in the Beaver Third Ward chapel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 220 N. Main St., Beaver, Utah, with visitation at 11:30 a.m., funeral at 1 p.m. and interment at the Mountain View Cemetery. Memorial donations could be offered to the LDS Church Perpetual Education Fund, 50 East North Temple St., Room 1521, Salt Lake City, UT 84150, the family said.