When I first arrived in St. Louis in 1982, this city was nicknamed the “Contact Lens Capital of the U.S.” There were five very good reasons for this: Jack Hartstein, OD, MD (likely the only ophthalmologist to author multiple books on contact lenses and a scleral lens fitter at age 90), Jim Gordon, MD (an integral part of Dr. Donald Korb’s practice when he trained in Boston and past-president of the Contact Lens Association of Ophthalmologists), Robert Koetting, OD (innovator who established the first practice limited to contact lenses – Koetting & Associates – as well as popularizing the contact lens fitting of the presbyope), Rex Ghormley, OD (established Vision Care Consultants and was past president of the American Academy of Optometry), and Frank Fontana, OD (Founding Chair of the AOA Contact Lens and Cornea Section). I benefitted personally from these renowned contact lens and cornea specialists as did the College of Optometry. As the years went by and Dr. Gordon retired and moved away, and Drs. Koetting, Ghormley, and Hartstein passed away, one icon remained very active until the day he suddenly left us. On October 3rd, Dr. Frank Fontana passed away at the age 96, just a few days after suffering a massive stroke. He was doing what he loved, working on behalf of the profession at Vision Expo West in Las Vegas, when he suddenly became ill.
Frank Fontana, or “Uncle Frank” to everyone he encountered, was, quite frankly, one of the most beloved optometrists of all time. While establishing an international reputation for his work in contact lenses – and he was both a pioneer and a tremendous advocate for the benefits and applications of contact lenses – he will always be known as a great role model for how to treat other people. I remember traveling to the Kentucky Optometric Association (KOA) meeting 30 years ago. After obtaining a rental car in Louisville, we promptly got lost traveling to the city where the meeting was being held. We arrived around 1:00 am, but promptly at 7:00 am (while I was yawning), Uncle Frank was greeting each KOA staff person as if they were a member of his own family. It was a good life lesson: treat EVERY person you meet in a kind and warm manner. Everyone who met Frank Fontana would leave smiling and feeling very special.
Dr. Fontana served his country for three years during World War II, including 28 months of overseas duty in the European Theatre of Operation. After he fulfilled his military obligation (in which he had served in the Medical Corps), he made a decision that would forever benefit his chosen profession: he used the G.I. Bill to enter the (then) Northern Illinois College of Optometry. Upon graduation, he established his St. Louis-based private practice, Fontana Eyecare Associates in 1950. The rest, of course, is history. One of the early advocates of contact lens fitting – which he learned from Drs. Newton Wesley and George Jessen – he founded the Contact Lens and Cornea Section (CLCS) of the American Optometric Association (AOA) and was a co-founder of the Heart of America Contact Lens Society. He became a Diplomate in the Cornea, Contact Lenses & Refractive Technologies Section of the America Academy of Optometry. He has also been greatly honored. In 2014, he was honored as the first recipient of the Review of Optometry Visionary Award and one year later was named one of the 50 most influential in optometry by Optometric Management. The AOA CLCS has honored him several times including the “Legends” Award, and the (lifetime) Achievement Award. However, the greatest tribute that can be given to an optometrist in the United States was bestowed upon Dr. Fontana in 2012, when he was inducted into the National Optometry Hall of Fame.
He has also been very supportive of the College of Optometry, as Dean Larry Davis emphasizes: “Uncle Frank’s passion for optometry and presence throughout the profession never wavered. Always eyeing the next opportunity, he was an architect for change, earning respect from colleagues while building numerous endearing personal lifetime relationships. Fifteen of those relationships became known collectively as ‘The Nephews’ who fondly established the ‘Dr. Frank and Mrs. Dorris Fontana Scholarship,’ a need-based award given each year. Frank could make anyone from any generation feel important and at ease, all at the same time. It is proper that the scholarship continues to connect Frank and Dorris with future generations of optometrists.”