by Edward Bennett, OD
Dr. Larry Davis, Dean of the College of Optometry since 2000, ended his tenure as Dean effective September 1, 2022. I first met Dr. Davis when he was a 4th year optometry student at Indiana University (IU) and applied for the UMSL Cornea and Contact Lens Residency program. Both Dr. Vinita Henry and I were impressed with his exceptional academic performance at IU and his calm demeanor and professionalism . . . personality strengths that would ultimately help define him as a leader.
Dr. Davis was a very dedicated resident who most certainly had a passion for cornea and contact lenses. It was customary for the resident to see specialty contact lens patients part-time at the Saint Louis University (SLU) Department of Ophthalmology. As luck would have it for Dr. Davis, there was both an absence of a Department Chair for some of his tenure, and the contact lens staff person had quit. Therefore, he essentially did everything due to the absence of staff and lesser involvement by the ophthalmology residents. His reward was to be selected as the first full-time optometrist at SLU with an emphasis in cornea and contact lenses. He was on faculty for five years, rising to the rank of Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology. It was during this time that he began developing a reputation as a rising star in clinical research, both publishing in peer-reviewed journals and serving as a Site Principal Investigator for the largest National Eye Institute grant given to optometry, the Collaborative Longitudinal Evaluation of Keratoconus (CLEK). With his desire to serve as an educator as well as a clinical researcher, he applied for and was successfully hired into the UMSL College of Optometry for a tenure-track faculty position in 1993. He was a dedicated educator who was honored by the students as the UMSL College of Optometry “Educator of the Year.”
Within a matter of months after he was granted tenure in 1999, his world changed . . . in one day. He was asked to meet with Chancellor Touhill; at that meeting he was asked if he would agree to become acting Dean of the College of Optometry. Dean Jack Bennett was ailing from a disease that would end his life within a few months. This was an enormous undertaking for a young man in his 30s faced with handling an older, established faculty. This situation was even more challenging as the College was behind schedule in the re-accreditation process, critical for both the reputation of the College as well as for recruitment. His first success was the result of prioritizing re-accreditation above all other responsibilities. Due to his leadership, UMSL received an unprecedented seven-year reaccreditation.
I can definitely state that the early years were challenging for Dean Davis. All new leaders experience reluctance to change and resistance to new procedures. That said, the College gradually began to exhibit positive change and growth. The national board performance improved, faculty and staff became more cohesive, and guidelines and protocols were established to provide an effective structure and organization. Specifically, there were three areas during the later years of Dean Davis’s 22-year period as Dean that will define his legacy: 1) Reaccreditation. As mentioned before, Dean Davis “majored in accreditation.” He led the College through several reaccreditation cycles, all resulting in the granting of the maximum seven-year approval. 2) Patient Care Center. As Assistant Dean for Student Services & Alumni Relations, I was responsible for student admission into the program. When the Michigan College of Optometry opened their new facility, the UMSL clinical facility on the first floor of Marillac Hall officially became the least attractive such facility in the country. This made student recruitment much more challenging, as all of the nearby colleges of optometry had better – if not much better – facilities. Dean Davis changed all that. With a very innovative plan that would allow for a new building dedicated to patient care on Natural Bridge Road, he was successful in his strategic plan to both develop and gain approval from the university system for this much needed facility. Next to the day in the late 1970s when the College of Optometry was approved, the construction of the Patient Care Center would be the most significant event in the history of the College. Working in tandem with the exceptional efforts of the Director of Clinic Operations, Dr. Vinita Henry, a plan was developed for the facility which resulted in what is likely the most outstanding such patient center in the country. 3) Hiring of New Faculty. My last few years on faculty were, by far, my most enjoyable as the College of Optometry hired a series (ultimately 10) of young, dedicated new faculty. The new faculty “Dream Team” made a difference in the education of our students. When complemented by a dedicated group of experienced faculty, the level of education received by our students was unparalleled in the history of our program.
Dr. Davis has a long and impressive history of leadership in the profession. He has served as board member and president of the Heart of America Contact Lens Society. He held in every officer position, including president, of the St. Louis Optometric Society. And he has served as president of both the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry and the National Board of Examiners in Optometry. Most importantly, he has been as a strong advocate for optometry in the state of Missouri and served many years on the Legislative Committee of the Missouri Optometric Association. He has been honored with both the “Optometrist of the Year” and “Distinguished Optometrist of the Year” from the St. Louis Optometric Society while also obtaining both his Fellow and Diplomate (Cornea and Contact Lens Section) in the American Academy of Optometry. In October 2022, he was named “Optometrist of the Year” by the Missouri Optometric Association.
Dr. Davis also has one more important component to his exceptional legacy to the profession of optometry, his daughter Sydni. Sydni graduated with honors from the UMSL College of Optometry in 2020 and, like her father, then completed a cornea and contact lens residency. Her residency at the Arizona College of Optometry led to a position as an Assistant Professor of Optometry. She is also developing a national reputation in her field and shares her father’s great passion for the profession.
Dr. Davis does intend to remain on the faculty for a while, where his knowledge and experience will be invaluable in helping mentor our new Dean, Dr. Keshia Elder. Dean Elder is a beloved former faculty member capable of continuing the very positive direction the College has enjoyed in recent years. With the recent retirement of his wife Janice, a long-time dedicated teacher, it won’t be long before there will be a lake calling his name to relax and enjoy a long-deserved retirement. What he will leave behind is an enormous legacy that the UMSL College of Optometry will be blessed to cherish and benefit from well into the future.