Longtime dentist in Paxton retiring

PAXTON — Four decades ago, as Dr. Russell Pitch was getting ready to receive his doctorate in dental surgery from Loyola University in Chicago, he and his wife, Phyllis, decided they wanted to move away from the everyday hustle and bustle of a big city.

They took out a map of Illinois. Russell drew a line south of Chicago. His wife drew another line farther south, around the Shelbyville area. Then, they started picking out small towns between the two lines, each ranging in population from about 5,000 to 10,000 people.

“Paxton was one of them,” Russell Pitch said.

The Ford County seat, as it turned out, would become their home for the next 40 years — and the place where Dr. Pitch would establish his career in dentistry.

“I started writing to the chambers of commerce in different towns to see about the need for a dentist there,” Pitch said. “Well, the president of the chamber of commerce (in Paxton) at the time was friends with Rich Foellner. Soon, I got a phone call from Dr. Foellner, who said, ‘Hey, come on down; I’ve got a building with a spot that would be good for a dentist.’”

The building was located at 225 N. Market St. Pitch ended up renting an office there for his dental practice until 1992, then moved to a different building in downtown Paxton — the one he would remain in for the next 24 years — at 140 N. Market St.

At first, the young Pitch was one of four dentists in downtown Paxton.

Dr. Jim Dunnan practiced on West Center Street, next to the existing Busey Bank, while Dr. Teresa Roncevich operated her practice out of a little house just north of where the Paxton True Value Hardware & Rental Store currently is located.

Then there was Dr. Russell Staerkel, whose practice was housed in the same building as Pitch’s.

“Rich (Foellner) came to me while my office was being worked on (in preparation for opening) and said, ‘Well, Dr. Staerkel is getting out of the Air Force. He lives in town and wants to set up a practice in town. Do you mind if he’s in the same building?’” Pitch recalled. “I said, ‘No. There’s going to be competition in town, so being in the same building isn’t going to make a difference.’ So we opened in the same week, and the town went from two dentists to four in the same week.”

As the years went by, one dental practice after another in Paxton closed. Today, Pitch and Dr. Todd Johnson — who ended up buying Staerkel’s practice — are the only two dentists remaining.

Pitch, however, won’t be in practice much longer.

The 70-year-old Pitch is set to retire Sept. 28. He has agreed to sell his practice to Dr. John Vallone, who practices dentistry in Bourbonnais and Cissna Park. Pitch said Vallone plans to be in Paxton part-time and will utilize an associate dentist when he’s not.

According to Pitch, Vallone plans to retain the office’s five-member staff — whom Pitch described as “the greatest staff I could have ever asked for” — including receptionist Kristi Johnson, hygienists Romanna Williams and Joline Luecke and dental assistants Lynn Ingold and Donita Cluver.

For Pitch, it has been a long and rewarding career that has seen him fix generations of teeth — everyone from Grandma and Grandpa, to Mom and Dad, to the kids and grandkids.

“It ended up being a wonderful profession,” said Pitch. “I feel blessed that I became a dentist, and I passionately enjoyed my 40 years of dentistry. I wish I could do another 30, but Father Time has told me I can’t.”

Pitch started considering retirement after tearing his rotator cuff in a fall two years ago.

“I realized that,” Pitch said, “even though I didn’t want to face the fact I was getting older and was one illness or fall away from not being able to practice and having to immediately just shut the doors and tell patients they had to find something, somebody else.

“I didn’t want that to happen — to die and leave my wife with a practice and the equipment and stuff to try to have to get rid of,” Pitch said.
In retirement, Pitch plans to “relax and enjoy the grandkids and maybe do a little bit of traveling with my wife and enjoy not really being committed to having to be at work and worry about all the headaches of a small business owner,” he said.

Pitch and his wife plan to stick around Paxton, too.

“I think the people of Central Illinois are probably the finest people in the world,” Pitch said. “It’s been a wonderful area to live and raise a family.”

Like father, like son
Pitch’s father, Oliver H. Pitch, was also a dentist. His father had his own practice for about 50 years in Lake of the Hills, a community in McHenry County northwest of Chicago. He was the only dentist there at the time.

Pitch said his father’s work, at first, seemed a bit boring. But it grew on him, and he eventually opted to follow in his footsteps.

It was a decision that wasn’t made, however, until after Pitch had already earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from North Central College in Naperville.

And Pitch had actually started out college with the intention of becoming not a dentist or chemist, but rather an engineer.

“By the time I got to my senior year in college and kind of had to declare a major, the only two things I had enough credits in were math and chemistry, because I had been going (through a) pre-engineering (curriculum) to start out,” Pitch recalled. “But back in the ‘70s, there weren’t any computers to speak of, so if I was going to be a math major I was probably going to end up teaching, and I didn’t know that I wanted to teach. So I graduated with a chemistry degree, kind of by default.”

After graduating from North Central College, Pitch worked for three years as a chemist, but he soon realized that chemistry “gave me no gratification,” he said.

He wanted to work with his hands. And dentistry, he decided, would give him that chance.

While attending Dundee High School in Carpentersville in the early 1960s, Pitch had developed X-rays for his father’s dental practice and also helped out in the dental office. Such experience helped him understand what to expect in his future career.

Initially, Pitch wasn’t so enthusiastic about entering dentistry. When his high school guidance counselor analyzed the results of an aptitude test that Pitch took, the counselor told Pitch that he ought to become a dentist since he likes to work with his hands. Pitch balked at the thought.

“I remember sitting there and saying, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life’ — that it was just a boring profession,” Pitch recalled. “Nothing changed (in dentistry). It was the same old, same old thing. ... (Through working for my dad), I knew just enough (about dentistry) to think that it was a boring field.”
After later earning his doctorate at Loyola University in 1976 and starting his own dental practice that same year, Pitch would find out dentistry was anything but boring.

“I enjoy helping people learn how to take care of their oral health better and restore problems for them that they have and hopefully get them to realize that they can save their teeth all of their life,” Pitch said. “And I enjoy the pride when they smile, when we’ve done a good job and things look nice.”

No place like Paxton
Making the move to Paxton from the Chicago area was an easy decision for Pitch and his wife. The location was just close enough to the Chicago area that the couple would be able to visit friends and family, and it was just far enough away that it gave them the laid-back, small-town life they were seeking.

“When I had grown up in Lake of the Hills, it was a small village, but by the time I got out of dental school, driving from Lake of the Hills to Chicago, it was one suburb after another, and you never knew when you were out of one and into the next one,” Pitch said. “It had changed so much from my childhood that I really wanted to raise my children in more of an atmosphere like I grew up in — not as much of the hustle and bustle and everything else. So that was the reason we wanted to find a smaller area to set up a practice and raise a family in.

“It came basically down to Paxton and Shelbyville. And Shelbyville really needed a dentist more than Paxton. I went and talked to a dentist there, and he was in his late 60s, early 70s, and said, ‘I do amalgams and dentures and that’s it.’ He said the other dentist (in Shelbyville), all he does is dentures. And they were both gone to Florida a lot in the winter time.

“But a combination of just liking the town of Paxton and Dr. Foellner made us really excited to come to Paxton.

“At the time, there may not have been a need for four dentists in Paxton, but I didn’t realize when I committed to coming here that Dr. Staerkel was also going to practice dentistry, and he didn’t realize that I was going to.

“On a side note: When I came down to meet Dr. Foellner, he called up Dr. Dunnan and said, ‘I’ve got a young guy here that’s going to be coming to town as a dentist. Would you mind talking to him?’ So I went over and talked to (Dr. Dunnan). He told me how he practiced and whatnot and said, ‘I don’t think Paxton really needs another dentist. I think what we need is about half a dentist.’ I went back to Rich’s house and told him that, and my wife says, ‘That’s perfect! As slow as you are, you’re half a dentist anyway.’

“In dental school, you treated one patient in the morning and one patient in the afternoon. So, technically, at that rate, I was about half a dentist. By the time you got every procedure checked, it took all morning to get one patient done.”

Will miss his staff, patients
When asked what he is going to miss once retired, Pitch said:

“The staff and the patients. The relationships with the patients is really kind of special, and something I’ve enjoyed. And the relationships with the staff, too — they’ve been wonderful and most of them have been there almost forever.”

Pitch said he has no regrets about coming to Paxton and remaining here so long. The small-town environment is just what he was searching for, he said.

“I think one of the nice things about a small town is that the patients I treat, I see on the street and deal with outside of the office also,” Pitch said.
“When I went to dental school, a lot of the guys wanted to practice in Naperville or Winnetka (in suburban Chicago) or some other place, and with all the people around there they would never even see or run into anybody in their practice when they’re in their private life,” Pitch said. “In a small town, you get to know everybody pretty much, and it’s just a nicer atmosphere.”

Pitch was longtime firefighter
In addition to being a dentist, Pitch served as a volunteer firefighter for the Paxton Fire Protection District for 39 years. He retired as a firefighter at the end of last year.

The fire department held a “walk-out” ceremony and award presentation for Pitch last Sunday. The event honored Pitch for his decades of service.
Becoming a firefighter was never a goal of Pitch’s. But when a neighbor asked him to join, he couldn’t pass up the chance.

“When we first moved to town, we rented a house next to Jim Alkire (on Pells Street west of the Paxton IGA),” Pitch said. “Jim lived next door, and he was a captain on the fire department. And about a year after we’d been in town, he asked me if I’d like to get on the fire department. I said, ‘Sure.’

“The funny thing is, growing up as a kid, one of my good friends, his father was on the Chicago Fire Department ... and I can never remember wanting to be a firefighter as a kid. I wanted to be a cowboy, wanted to be an astronaut — typical things — and then I wind up being on the fire department.”
Pitch joined the fire department in 1977. First, he served as a “black hat” for “a while.” He then was promoted to captain when Don Jones became fire chief. Pitch later became fire chief himself, serving in that role from 1995 to 2002, before returning to “black hat” under Chief Denny Kingren.

“It turned out to be a great experience for me — the camaraderie amongst the firemen is second to none,” Pitch said. “You get to really become more than just friends — you become brothers with the other firemen when you’re counting on them to back you up and keep you alive, and they’re counting on you for the same thing.

“And there are a lot of good times on the department that you laugh about afterwards, where something silly happens. Like when you get up at 2 in the morning and find out it was a ‘nothing’ call. Probably in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, we had a call at 2 in the morning for something, and I jumped in the car and took off (to head to the firehouse). They had called us out (with the code) ‘10-22.’ Well, at the time, we were using the ‘10’ codes, but I didn’t know them. So, anyway, half a dozen of us show up at the fire station, and we’re standing there waiting, and finally somebody comes in and looks at the ‘10’ codes and sees that ‘10-22’ was ‘disregard.’

“Stuff like that you laugh about for a long time afterwards.”

Time for some fun
Being a firefighter took up much of Pitch’s free time.

“I haven’t had a lot in the way of real hobbies,” Pitch admitted. “Recently, I’ve gotten into some target-shooting, but other than that, just a little travel.”

Pitch hopes to have much more free time in about a month from now.

“I’ll probably stay within the U.S., but I’d like to do some traveling by car, since I love driving my (2012 Chevrolet) Corvette,” Pitch said. “We are going to West Virginia in October and then going to take kind of an antique train tour around the state for a little bit. I think driving in West Virginia in the fall should be pretty.”

Open house set for Sept. 25
An open house honoring Pitch for his 40 years as a dentist in Paxton is set for 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, at his dental office at 140 N. Market St.

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