His tooth-side manner is so gentle and encouraging that he makes children feel 10 feet tall while reminding them to brush and floss.
That's not something Dr. Richard J. Thill learned in dental school.
He's a Roman Catholic priest with a devout interest in healthy teeth. And he says the communication skills he developed in the seminary have served him well in the dental office, where his biggest challenge is improving preventive care for children ranging from toddlers to teens.
Thill, who pauses to say grace during an interview at a restaurant near his office, is as comfortable practicing dentistry in a short-sleeved yellow smock alongside a life-sized robot named Dr. Beap as he is standing behind a pulpit in priestly attire.
Dr. Beap (Bartholomew Edubot Automaton Peabody)--whose midsection is a TV on which educational videos are played--is part of an effort to make going to the dentist a positive experience for children.
Dr. Beap hangs out in a small waiting area next to the open bay where Thill works side by side with his colleagues, Warren Brandli and Michael McCartney, longtime friends who specialize in pediatric dentistry. They invited Thill to share their Tustin practice while he waits for a transfer of jurisdiction as a priest from Colorado to California.
The openness of the room where they work enables children to hear the dentists banter with each other and their patients, keeping the atmosphere lighthearted even when distasteful fluoride treatments are being given or drills are humming.
As the more boisterous McCartney makes jokes, Thill can be heard quietly conversing with his patients, mixing advice on how to care for their teeth with questions about how their lives are going.
"How's school?" he asks an eighth-grade boy as he checks his teeth.
"You're going to be graduating soon, aren't you?"
The boy nods.
"Congratulations--good work. Looks like you've been brushing. Keep it up. I have to keep telling myself that. I know it's work, but you can do it."
McCartney says Thill has a special ability to be empathetic with his patients and to use the best approach for each child. McCartney is delighted to have a priest on his dental staff.
"It makes a wonderful combination," he says. "With Dr. Rich, everything is done in a real caring and giving way."
Thill, who attended Catholic schools and St. Boniface Catholic Church while growing up in Anaheim, became a dentist before entering the priesthood. He remained active in the church as he earned his degree in general dentistry at Marquette University, completed a two-year specialty program in pediatric dentistry at the University of Maryland and began private practice, first in Fullerton, then in Denver.
While practicing in Denver, he became close friends with a longtime priest whose sermons "made me start to think about my faith--about studying more and sharing it with others," he says.
The priest helped him tune into an inner voice that he had been hearing since he was a boy. "He said the Lord calls and doesn't give up calling," Thill says.
This time, Thill was ready.
He entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver in 1976 and was ordained in 1981. He served in the Pueblo Diocese in southern Colorado for about seven years. After spending four months in Mexico--where he learned the language and customs by participating in baptisms, weddings and other special occasions--he returned to Anaheim about a year and a half ago for an extended rest at the home of his parents, Elmer and Gene Thill.
His leave from Pueblo was supposed to last a year, but he decided to relocate permanently so he could remain close to his family. While he is awaiting official word from his bishop in Pueblo giving him jurisdiction to serve here, his parishioners are young dental patients who are learning to rely on Thill's soothing voice to allay their fears.
That is particularly important to the children he treats as a volunteer on Monday afternoons. They are residents of Orangewood Children's Home, the county's shelter for abused, neglected and abandoned children.
"It's challenging because you're working with children who've been abused, so you want to make sure you go gentle and slow," he says.
With any child who is fearful in a dentist's chair, Thill makes a special effort to be quick, efficient--and reassuring.
"They need to feel loved, to know someone's caring for them," he says.
Thill, who is lean and fit at 50, approaches his work with enormous energy, which he maintains by filling his spare time with activities that nurture mind, body and soul.
"I keep very fit--physically, mentally and emotionally. We need to balance our lives," he says.
He takes time every day for prayer and tries "to recognize the presence of God all day long," which, he says, helps him cope with the fast pace of life in Orange County. On Sunday afternoons, he meditates and studies Scripture.