On Veterans Day, longevity is a blessing for one doctor of optometry

On Veterans Day, longevity is a blessing for one doctor of optometry

J. James Thimons Jr., O.D., recalls walking to a nearby optometry practice, not far from his office in Connecticut, a few years back. Inside, Jack Herrle, M.Ed., O.D., graciously greeted him and they sat down in an examination room to eat lunch.

He may be the last optometrist in the U.S. with a degree signed by Dwight Eisenhower.

It was a convivial conversation and shortly thereafter, Dr. Thimons offered to buy Dr. Herrle's practice. Dr. Herrle has practice locations in Wallingford and Meriden, Connecticut. Dr. Thimons had known Dr. Herrle through the Connecticut Association of Optometrists, but he learned that day that there was more to Dr. Herrle than meets the eye. Dr. Herrle is a veteran of two wars: World War II and the Korean War. "If you were 18 years old, you were drafted," says Dr. Herrle, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.

He started World War II as a "grunt" or private in the U.S. Army, serving in the storied 100th Infantry Division, which sustained significant casualties in France and Germany. According to the division's official combat history (in 1944 and 1945), its soldiers earned three Medals of Honor, 36 Distinguished Service Crosses and more than 500 Silver Stars for bravery. Its units were honored with eight Distinguished Unit Citations. He finished his tour as a sergeant.

Later, during the Korean War, he served as a doctor of optometry and finished that tour of duty as a second lieutenant.

That is impressive enough, says Dr. Thimons, a fan of history. But the diploma hanging in Dr. Herrle's exam room would catch Dr. Thimons' eye that day.

The diploma, from the optometry school at Columbia University in New York, was signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, five-star Army general and the nation's 34th president. Eisenhower was president of Columbia University from 1948 through 1953. Columbia had the first university-based school of optometry in the country at the time, and Dr. Herrle graduated from its two-year program in 1949.

"I believe he may be the last optometrist in the U.S. with a degree signed by Dwight Eisenhower," says Dr. Thimons, noting that Dr. Herrle was a fully certified therapeutic optometrist, the highest level of licensure in the state of Connecticut. "I admire him for all he's done, but more importantly, for his longevity. "He still practices five days a week in multiple offices," he adds.

"He represents the purity of the profession—that post-World War II era when optometry was a new profession, and that generation came back from the war saying, 'I'm going to move the profession forward.' He has dedicated his life to optometry." This year, the Connecticut Association of Optometrists honored Dr. Herrle with its President's Award for his years of service and dedication to the profession. He was introduced by Dr. Thimons. Formerly president of the association (1971-72), Dr. Herrle was named its Optometrist of the Year in 1972. The AOA also has honored him with its Optometric Recognition Award for pursuing continuing education beyond the requirements set by state licensing boards.

The AOA recently talked with Dr. Herrle about his long career:

What do you say when people inquire about how long you've been practicing (about 65 years)?
From time to time, people will ask me. I tell them I don't plan to retire. Optometry is both my vocation and my avocation. This is where I enjoy being.

What was your experience with President Eisenhower?
I graduated from Columbia in 1949, and the first and only time I saw him on campus was the West Point-Columbia football game, which ended in a 14-14 tie. It was a beautiful sunny day in October. It was also the first date I had with my (future) wife, Eileen. A lot of people were wearing 'I LIKE IKE' buttons, and the conversation and speculation before the game was which side of the field Eisenhower was going to sit on. He'd graduated from West Point, but he was president of Columbia. At halftime, he went from one side of the field to the other side. Everybody erupted into cheers. After graduation, I joined a practice for a little while in New York state. In 1954, we moved to Connecticut and started a practice.

What impact did your military service have on your career?
I went to optometry school on the GI Bill after World War II. Of the 90 of us in optometry school, almost all of us were on the GI Bill. There was only one woman in the class. I couldn't ever get into optometry school today because it's so rigorous. Optometry has made remarkable advances into the medical field.

Dr. Thimons is a big admirer of yours. Whom do you admire?
When the optometry school at Columbia closed (in 1956), Dr. (Alden Norman) Haffner picked up the pieces and opened a clinic in New York City. He kept it going for several years until the State University of New York was founded. He was the founding president of SUNY and, though I never met him, he was one of the greats of optometry and I appreciate what he did.

You've earned master's degrees from Columbia and the University of Hartford, plus a doctorate of optometry from the Massachusetts College of Optometry (now the New England College of Optometry). How does education fit in with your longevity?
Longevity is a blessing. But there's a whole 'lotta forgettin' goin' on'. That's why I take the extra course—to stay current with current patients.

What is your wish for the profession?
In the 1950s many doctors of optometry studied and practiced 'whole-body' vision training, as advocated by A.M. Skeffington and his Optometric Extension Program (OEP). Hopefully, optometry will continue to emphasize neurobiological behavioral therapy to remedy concussions and similar disorders.

You wrote your own epitaph. What did you say?
I wrote, "He was a humble man; he had plenty to be humble about."

November 11, 2016

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