Farewell to Dr. Larry Alexander, my optometric hero

April 20, 2016

I know that I am hurtling toward eternity each passing day, but I don't dwell on it. Life gets in the way, you know? Yet nothing makes you face you own mortality than the death of someone close.

I know that I am hurtling toward eternity each passing day, but I don't dwell on it. Life gets in the way, you know? Yet nothing makes you face you own mortality than the death of someone close.   

I first met Larry Alexander when I was a green, wet-behind-the-ears second-year optometry student. I was drawn to him like a moth to a flame by his laid-back nature. He was so unlike the other professors at the school. He was not afraid to speak his mind, which he did frequently. I guess tenure gives you that freedom. He taught us ocular disease from the textbook that he wrote, Primary Care of the Posterior Segment (How dadgone cool is that? It’s now in its third edition). I busted my butt in his courses trying to impress him. If you graduated from the UABSO from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s, you knew your retina because you were taught by Larry Alexander.

To say I looked up to him wouldn't even begin to describe how I felt about the man. Hero-worship approximates it. When we were finally turned loose on the unsuspecting public in our third and fourth years, I followed him around in clinic at every opportunity like a little whipped puppy. My interest in ocular disease was born from his enthusiasm and the wisdom he shared, with me and all his students.

Moving on from UAB

We both left Birmingham around the same time. I graduated, and he took a job with a large retinal practice in Kentucky after teaching at UAB for almost 20 years. But in keeping with his gift, he still continued to teach. He made an emerging technology, optical coherence tomography, understandable to a lot of us in graduate continuing education courses, just as he had retinal disease while in the university classroom. He had an amazing ability to simplify a complex subject. 

Years later, I sold my practices and returned to UAB to teach-in no small part because I wanted to be like Larry Alexander. Yet I could never match his knowledge, his intelligence, his clinical acumen, and by no means his acerbic wit. But I did feel like I’d copied him in one area: treating all of my students like they were people.

Next: Medical optometry and much more

 

Medical optometry and much more

He espoused the medical model of optometry his entire career and was proud that he helped our profession mature. He served as clinical editor of Optometry and Vision Science. In that role, he recruited me to be one of its clinical reviewers. I doubt any of his former students could ever tell him “no” whenever he asked. He developed eyelessons.com, an online educational portal for ODs, which he ceased upon his retirement. He served as senior director of clinical education at Optovue, and as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board at Biosyntrx Inc. He was a past president of the Optometric Retina Society and was a member of the Optometric Glaucoma Society and the Optometric Nutrition Society.

I know he was especially happy to be honored with the inaugural Indiana University Distinguished Alumni Foley House Award this year. He was happily married to Lynn for almost 50 years, and they have two sons, Matt and Dan. 

In 2015, Energeyes, the Association of Corporate-Affiliated Optometrists, honored me with its second President’s Council Award. What made the honor even more special was that the first President’s Council Award recipient was Larry Alexander. (Watch his keynote address here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myhZY0vhanw) I got to tell him that and how much he meant to me and to my growth as an OD.

Boy, am I glad I got that opportunity. Just a few weeks ago, he called to tell me how much he enjoyed my editorials and how proud he was of his former student. Now, there’s a memory I’ll carry with me to my grave.

Larry J. Alexander was one of the greatest minds in optometry. As my classmate Dr. Mike Brown said, “He was brilliant and a real human being. Not often you get both of those in the same package.”

He was a visionary and an amazing mentor, colleague, and friend to more of us than could be imagined. He shaped how many of us practice optometry. He will be sorely missed. But he leaves an amazing legacy. I know the doctor I am today is because of him. And I’m certain I am not alone.

Aeternum vale, mi amice.