Mississippi native Roy L. Irons (’76 D.D.S.) came to Iowa in 1972. Coming from humble beginnings, Irons made the most of the opportunities presented to him, and he has become a leader in the dental profession in Mississippi and the nation while dedicating himself to being a resource and example for the community, particularly those who lack support and opportunities.
Irons grew up in Corinth, Mississippi, in subsidized housing and the son of a single mother who faithfully worked multiple jobs over Irons’ childhood to provide opportunities for him that she did not have. Irons made the most of those opportunities and was the first person in his family to attend college.
Irons went to Tougaloo College, a historically black institution with a rich history, and near the end of his time at Tougaloo, he knew that he wanted to become a dentist, but he didn’t know the best way to accomplish that goal. Around that time, Dr. James Mulvihill, the dean of the NYU College of Dentistry came to speak at Tougaloo. Irons took that opportunity to make a connection with the speaker, and made quite the impression as he took Irons under his wing, encouraged him to apply at Iowa, and offered to write a letter on Irons’ behalf to Dean Donald Galagan (’37 D.D.S).
Although it was somewhat fortuitous that Irons ended up at Iowa, he really came to appreciate the education he received at Iowa.
“Iowa was one of the top 10 dental schools in the country,” Irons said, “with outstanding faculty and research, and when I graduated everyone knew I was well credentialed.”
Two Iowa faculty members, in particular, made an impact on Irons. Dr. Leslie Higa in Oral Surgery mentored Irons along with many other African-American students at the time, offering a great deal of support and encouragement. Dr. George Andreason in Orthodontics also encouraged Irons by telling him that he should pursue orthodontics because Irons “had the best hands in the class.”
After graduating from Iowa, Irons served as active military in the Navy for four years, and then spent the next 24 years in the reserves, retiring as a U.S. Navy Captain after two commands. During his time in the reserves, Irons returned to Gulfport, Mississippi, to establish a private practice. Over the course of his career, Irons sought out mentors and examples, and those connections helped him grow into the professional and community member that he is.
“My mentors had a lot of faith and confidence in me, and when I talk to young folks, I tell them about the impact that these mentors had on me, their wisdom and how they carried themselves, and how I wanted to be like them,” Irons explained.
Irons advice to young alumni is to find examples and mentors to emulate.
“Take your thumb and hang it into my belt loop and I will introduce you to everyone I know,” Irons quipped to all his mentees.
Over his career, Irons served on a variety of national, regional, and local boards. He has served as president (1980-1982) and board chairman (1982-1984) of the Mississippi Dental Society; president of the Tougaloo College National Alumni Association (1986-1988); member of the Board of Trustees for Tougaloo College; member of the State Board of Dental Examiners in Mississippi; and the 88th president of the National Dental Association (2012). Irons served as a Commissioner for the Mississippi State Port Authority, which is the third largest port in the Gulf of Mexico. He also served as commissioner with the ADA Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations.
In his free time, Irons enjoys spending time with his daughter, Shunda—an accomplished scientist in her own right—and his granddaughter, who is his pride and joy.
For over 45 years since he graduated from the College of Dentistry, Dr. Roy Irons has become a man of discipline, grace, and wisdom and he has become that kind of example for others that he sought to emulate as a younger man. For these reasons, the University of Iowa Dental Alumni Association and the College of Dentistry wish to honor Dr. Roy Irons with the 2021 Leadership of the Year Award.