This picture was worth far more than a thousand words.
As soon as I turned the page my eyes fell on the photograph. It was the obituary section, and for a few moments I didn’t need to read any further. Dr. Robert Hilbert looked pretty much as I have remembered him for nearly six decades, the kindly man showing pictures on the screen as a five-year-old me peered through the various lenses that tested my eyesight.
I really don’t know why my mind’s eye still has 20/20 vision from that exam from so long ago. Perhaps it was because I always have been nearsighted, and that may have been the first time in my life I saw a distant image brought into focus. It was a deep blue screen in a semi-darkened room, and I still recall that clear drawing of a cow jumping over a bright yellow crescent moon.
Soon after that visit I was wearing glasses that gave me a much clearer view of the world. And for decades thereafter regular visits with Dr. Hilbert became a constant of my life. Whether I was a young boy getting that first eye checkup or a middle aged man facing down the need for bifocals, I always felt very much at ease seated in Dr. Hilbert’s exam chair.
I didn’t fully appreciate it as a younger man, but now I realize that Dr. Hilbert put me so at ease because he genuinely cared for me not just as a patient but as a person. I remember him showing an interest in my choice of a college and my study of journalism, and I could sense his admiration and interest when I joined the staff at The Bryan Times, and when I was named editor of the paper late in his own career.
Even now I chuckle when I recall him warning me years ago that bifocals were not far in the future, and his good-natured I told you so attitude when the need for them soon arrived. As I got older I began returning the favor of showing an interest in him and his career, and learned that he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather in becoming an optometrist.
I still relive the twinge of sadness I felt when he shared the news that he soon would retire. I suppose he had been a part of my life for so long that I just assumed he always would be there.
As Times editor I enjoyed the duty of assigning myself the story of Dr. Hilbert’s retirement, and it was one of the most memorable interviews of my entire career. He told me he would never forget the day he opened his 324 W. High St. office, as it was on Election Day – Nov. 2, 1952, as was noted in his obituary.
He shared many other memories, and his obituary reminded me of much of what he shared, such as the family connection that not only his grandfather, but also a great-uncle, brother and nephew were optometrists. Dr. Hilbert was a World War II Navy medic, and he was proud that the office where he conducted his practice for 43 years had housed optometrists since 1864.
My family ties with Dr. Hilbert also went back generations. His patients included my grandfather and great-uncles, as well as my parents and sisters. When our interview was over he presented me with a pair of eyeglasses that were in style when he opened his office in 1952, noting that my grandfather would have worn a similar pair. I still have those eyeglasses today.
Before I left he shared some welcome news, telling me he would be working part-time in the optometry office then located in the Sears store in Defiance. That granted me the great fortune to continue as his patient for several more years.
While at Sears he told me he lamented some changes in his field. He explained that when he began his career optometrists were encouraged to spend extra time with their patients and get to know them as people – the very thing I so appreciated about him. But by then, he said, spending as little time as necessary with each patient had become the standard procedure.
I was saddened when he finally retired for good, just as I was sad when I saw his photograph below the obituary heading. I’m sad, too, as I write this, yet I smile as I recall his warm and caring demeanor.
When it’s all said and done, I suppose that’s perhaps the greatest sign of a life well lived, that the people who knew you recall you with a smile.
Don Allison is an author, historian and retired editor of The Bryan Times. He can be reached at www.fadedbanner.com.