Author. Optometrist. Beer. Gas Permeable lenses. Sports. These words all describe one legend at the College of Optometry: Dr. Ed Bennett. In January 2019, Ed Bennett announced he was going to say goodbye to UMSL and say hello to improving his golf game, enjoying his view from his office that overlooks a golf course, enjoying life, and making plenty of visits to Florida. After 37 years at UMSL, it will be hard to imagine the place without him—showing his videos, dressing up as various characters, his laugh, his stories, and most of all his love and passion for contact lenses.
That is how Ed would describe himself as a student. After an initial rejection (on his birthday no less), his plan to attend optometry school was looking grim. Having a major in psychology and minor in “fraternity” (as he called it) from Indiana University was not the traditional path for the optometry profession. He also thinks that his minor was the hold up to his entry into an optometry program. However, the Chair of the Admissions Committee took a risk and admitted him and he never forgot that kind gesture. Mediocre is how he often defines himself to students and prospective students. However, what it also shows is that mediocre can translate into “Give me a chance and I will show you…” Some 37 years and dozens of awards, publications, and textbook editions later, Ed is married to the love of his life, has three successful children, and an abundant number of friends and colleagues. It is hard to say that Ed is mediocre.
If you have ever met Ed, you know that he has his stories. Some funny, some sad, some that make you say “wow.” Never a stranger and never short on words, he always has a story. Sometimes he even dresses up in disguises to tell them. His personality is not lacking.
His most memorable story should come as no surprise. It was watching the dream that was planted years ago when the optometry program started at UMSL. The building the optometry school lived in was meant to be a temporary home. But, almost 40 years later, Marillac Hall remains the home for optometry. However, the dream planted all those years ago was showing signs of sprouting. Dean Davis began to accelerate work on building a new clinic. From students voting overwhelmingly to support the new building, to working hard with student leaders, a glimmer of hope was showing. In January 2014, Ed, Dean Davis, Nick Palisch, and several students traveled to Columbia to wait for the official vote of approval for the soon-to-be Patient Care Center. It was a historical moment for the students, faculty, staff, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
One thing about Ed is that he doesn’t meet a stranger. He isn’t afraid to ask for funds to help the college and make the dream of the new Patient Care Center a reality. His connections range from the optometry world to professional baseball members and beyond. Ed knows everyone. Guitarist John Oates from his favorite band, Hall and Oates, sent Bennett a congratulations video on his retirement. One thing that others can learn from Ed is that he knows everyone in some capacity. As Ed reflects, “Today’s UMSL is not yesterday’s UMSL.” He feels that everyone can be very proud of where UMSL Optometry is today, and be he encourages all to visit to see the changes. Ed’s 30+ years at UMSL have helped to lay the foundation for successful years to come for the college.
In building a strong network of alumni and friends, Ed’s reach is beyond our true scope. Relationships are one thing that cannot be passed down, but rather they developed over many years. Every student since Ed arrived has been in one of his classes. Ed reminisces, “I have always felt appreciated and I think each of you has been very positive and respectful over the years. An instructor is never supposed to get too close to students, but I have never followed that principle.” Throughout his career at UMSL he has met a lot of students, and he has developed lasting friendships. And in his eyes, that has been a true blessing. A message to all his students is simple: “It’s been a privilege to teach each of you.”
Classes and Patients.
Ed’s style is evident in how he journeys with the students. He works with the students during the admissions process, talks about each student individually at White Coat, and hoods them at commencement. He makes them feel like they are part of a larger family. Ed has met some memorable patients along the way. Perhaps his favorite patient remains former Cardinals player Tommy Pham. Pham now plays for the Tampa Bay Rays, but his friendship with Tommy continues. Throughout his career he has worked with many residents who learned from him, both in clinic and when conducting “research” at a local restaurant.
One former resident, now serving as the Dean of the College of Optometry, Larry Davis reflects, “Being accepted to work with Dr. Bennett proved to be a good decision and has shaped my entire career. I can say without a doubt, and I would not be doing what I do had I not completed the residency program he started here at UMSL.” There are so many things that make Ed who he is today. “He has impacted the careers of numerous UMSL graduates in deep and meaningful ways. His numerous awards and professional accolades truly serve as a testament to the legacy through optometry and optometric education,” commented Davis. With many of them he still has a strong relationship, as they are now working in the profession.
Another student, Dr. Vinita Henry, always thought Bennett wasn’t that fond of her during optometry school. It was not until she began a residency that her professional relationship and friendship with him developed. Now the Director of Clinical Operations, she and Ed are very close, and that proof is through the writing of the contact lens textbook they co-author. Henry reflects, “His creativity, expertise, and drive have taken him to the top of the contact lens field where he is recognized internationally as a contact lens specialist. I have been honored to be his friend and colleague.” His impact on students and faculty can be heard echoing throughout the college and beyond. “Ed is the best, and his influence in the contact lens field is far from over as he will be very busy with the many organizations and meetings that further contact lenses,” commented Henry.
Students at other colleges and optometrists from around the country have likely heard the name Ed Bennett. Just don’t confuse him with “Dredward Bennett,” as a hotel in Oklahoma did. Ed was trying to check in after a long day of travel to speak at another optometry school and was getting turned away. Finally, after some time, Ed persuaded the clerk that they combined the DR in front of his name and let him check in.
The future is bright for the faculty, staff, and students (current and future). And while none of us can truly predict the future, Bennett believes, “the college will be in a perfect place [in the next five years]. I’m proud of what Dean Larry Davis is accomplishing and we currently have an outstanding group of established faculty who are complimented by exceptional faculty who have been recently hired.” The impact that he has made on the college will likely be the cornerstone with the founding deans of the college and will long be remembered decades from now.
We all need mentors who believe in us, give us a chance, and will support us throughout our journey. Throughout Ed’s career, he has been mentored by many individuals, including Drs. Rex Ghormley, Joe Barr, Bob Grohe, Glenda Secor, Tom Quinn, and Jeff Walline. “Each of these individuals has influenced me in different ways, but certainly by being outstanding mentors and leaders,” Ed reflected. It is without question that he has also been a great mentor, friend, colleague, a pioneer in the profession, advocate for the future of optometry and especially contact lenses. He has served on many national organizations, including GPLI, AAO, AOSA, and others. Ed was recently appointed to serve as a member of the Dean’s Development Council at his alma mater, Indiana University—but don’t worry, his heart will still be with UMSL.
A successful career can be summed up by many victories, successes, moments of fate and even a few failures and hiccups along the way. Sometimes they may be lucky breaks, and sometimes it is all the hard work and dedication you put into your work that makes it all rewarding. Ed doesn’t leave the profession or the legacy that he created through many facets of life, and he shares these words as he ends a vast chapter in his life and turns to the next chapter of his life. “If I can do it, you most certainly can do it,” he says. Closing a chapter, no matter how long you plan to do it, will still bring emotions to individuals, especially Ed. Reflecting on his lifelong career, Ed will miss the students and teaching the most. He also never forgot that someone at his alma mater saw something in him that could result in success and he took pride in taking those same risks with some of the almost 1000 applicants he admitted while observing tbeir eventual success. Likewise, with a very good team of devoted staff, faculty, and student ambassadors, he was proud that UMSL was able to admit a competitive class every year while – until recently – their facility was less than optimum. He will also miss the faculty who have been so enjoyable and supportive in recent years. He will certainly miss his sidekick and partner, Vinita Henry, whom he has known since his second year of teaching at UMSL. The friendship made between the two is remarkable and one that will carry on for years. Finally, Ed will miss his daily morning chat with Linda Stein, who has been a part of the student services team for 16 years, “I will miss those conversations and our resulting friendship,” said Bennett.
Ed’s plan to retire has been in the works for about four years. He now feels that it is time for him to give up working nights and weekends and begin to slow down a bit although he will be able to devote more time to his beloved GP Lens Institute, as well as Contact Lens Spectrum, and the Global Specialty Lens Symposium. Vinita and Dean Davis will also keep him engaged at UMSL where he will help teach the Contact Lens I course and be involved in several alumni functions. His wife, Jean, who is also an optometrist, plans to stay working for some time. But they do expect to spend more time traveling, losing golf balls, and enjoying a new daughter-in-law as their son Josh, a patent attorney in Utah, prepares to get married. His son Matt continues to work in the engineering field, and his daughter Emily is wrapping up her nursing degree at Rockhurst University. Family life will keep him moving!
If you know Ed, then you probably have a story or 10 about him. If Ed knows you, I am sure he has several about you. Retirement is a time to enjoy life and be happy with your accomplishments. It is a time to look back and think about what it took to get you to this point. Regardless if you are a mediocre person or a stellar one, the harder you work, the better the results. Looking back at Ed’s career, it is difficult to take every single moment in his life and put it in a story. Capturing the moments of his life is best experienced when he tells his stories—sometimes dressed in a wig or over a craft beer at a local establishment—talking to Ed is a treasure within itself.
We don’t say goodbye to Ed; instead we send him off with well-wishes. Ed, thanks for your contribution, your dedication, your inspiration, your humor, and your compassion. Thanks for believing in things even when others questioned it. Enjoy the next chapter traveling the world, watching your family expand, enjoying golf and other sporting events and concerts with Jean. Look back fondly and know that the impact you have made on the College of Optometry, UMSL, and the profession cannot be summed up in words.
So, let’s all raise our favorite craft beer and give one final toast to Dr. Ed Bennett for all the dedication and time he has given to UMSL and Optometry. Cheers to you and congratulations on a successful and meaningful career!