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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — It happens just about every Wednesday that Dr. John Abrams sees patients in his Westside office. Someone sees his name tag and asks, "Was that JJ Abrams who had an optometry practice on the Westside your father or relative? My great-grandmother or grandmother used to see him."
When Abrams answers, "Yes, that's my father," the person invariably responds, "Is he still alive?"
To which the younger Abrams replies with a smile, "Living? Just walk two doors down and look in the exam room, where he's looking at patients."
This week, the senior Abrams marks his 65th year in practice. He's been an optometrist longer than many of his patients have been alive.
When he opened his solo office just west of Downtown, on Jan. 19, 1950, at the age of 22, he was the youngest optometrist practicing in Indiana. Today, at the age of 87, he has been told, he is the oldest optometrist in the state.
Sure, things have changed since he began. He's no longer in solo practice, having joined his son at Abrams Eye Care about 15 years ago. Nor does he work full time, seeing patients only three afternoons a week.
But his patients say that they would never go to anyone else.
"He has been one of the most kind, gentle and honest people that I have ever known in my life," Grover Petty, who has been seeing Abrams for his eye care for about 25 years, told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1CjW68R ). "I trust him with one of the most important things in my life, and that's my sight."
Before Ronald Gemma found his way to Abrams, on his wife's recommendation about 15 years ago, he had seen many optometrists.
Gemma, who lives on the Westside, had progressive lenses, basically lineless trifocals, and spent years struggling to get his prescription right. Then he saw Abrams.
Abrams spent almost an hour and a half examining him, and when he was done, Gemma was amazed at how well he could see.
"Oh yeah, I'm a magician," Gemma recalls Abram joking.
But that, Gemma says, is an understatement.
"He's phenomenal and meticulous," Gemma said. "It was a wonderment. Once I went to him one time, I was unable to go to anybody else. ... He goes back to a different age when people in that kind of profession took their jobs more seriously."
Growing up on the Northside, Abrams didn't dream of being an optometrist. He attended Shortridge High School and Indiana University. But in his second semester in college, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 17. Although World War II ended four months later, Abrams was sent to Guam for a year, until he had completed his service in 1946.
Like many of his age, he went back to college under the GI Bill. His father, who was in the motion picture business, urged him to consider an optometry career, so he enrolled at the Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago, completing a four-year course in three years.
A few months after graduating in May 1949, Abrams decided to open his own practice at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Washington Street. At the time, there were about 10 optometrists in the city but none on the industrial Westside.
On Jan. 19, 1950, Abrams hung up a sign, "Eyes Examined, Dr. JJ Abrams," and opened for business. A few years later, he moved a few miles west to the corner of Edgehill Road and Washington Street. He did routine eye exams, fitting glasses and contact lenses and providing eye care. Patients came through word of mouth, many of them workers at the nearby General Motors, Allison, Bridgeport Brass and Link-Belt factories.
Many of his patients were union workers, such as teamsters, roofers, steam fitters, plumbers and painters. He would take their insurance but not charge them any extra.
Four years after he opened his office, he married Barbara. The couple soon had two sons, Jeffrey, now a lawyer, and John, the ophthalmologist. His younger son followed in his father's footsteps, opting to go into eye care as a physician. Of Abrams' five grandchildren, one granddaughter is training to be an ophthalmologist at Indiana University School of Medicine.
Over the years, Abrams was active in local optometry and ophthalmology professional organizations. He served as president of Prevent Blindness Indiana and worked with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, making several trips to Haiti, Honduras, Kenya and Cuba to fit those with poor vision with donated glasses.
Abrams' philosophy for treating patients is relatively simple: "I spend time with them and find out what their problem is and try to correct it."
He has worn glasses since about 40 and, though he has tried contact lenses, he prefers frames. He confesses to owning about a dozen pairs of glasses.
"It's just easy for me," he said.
Barbara, who died 12 years ago, also preferred glasses and, as an optometrist's wife, always had the latest in fashion. Abrams recalls the time the couple were on a trip to Finland and she spied a frame she liked in an optical store there.
"I had a heck of a time finding it, but I got the frame for her," he said.
During his 65 years in practice, he has seen a number of changes. Three years after he started, Indiana University opened its own optometry school.
Optometrists today can prescribe certain drugs, such as antibiotics, and treat glaucoma, two things once left to medical doctors. Contact lenses have improved dramatically in the time that Abrams has been in practice. Now, he can even offer those older than 45 who need bifocals a good soft lens that lets them go spectacle-free, even while reading.
The number of optometrists in the city — about 10 when he began — has grown exponentially. Large national chains such as LensCrafters and Sears have proliferated.
Many solo practitioners have joined with these larger concerns — and so, technically, has Abrams. But the person he reports to is someone he knows very well: his son.
Three afternoons a week, Abrams comes to work at the Westside Abrams Eye Care office.
"It's interesting," John Abrams said. "I would never have imagined I would be giving him paychecks when I was older."
Responded JJ Abrams: "I used to give him an allowance; now he gives me an allowance."
Joked John: "If I had known how much I would be giving him, I would have negotiated more when I was a kid."
Abrams, who now lives at Marquette Manor, said he has no plans to retire. He likes his job and his patients too much, he said, to stop working.
His patients agree.
"I hope he never retires," Gemma said. "If he would ever retire, the last prescription that he gives me is the prescription I will use for the rest of my life. I can't let anybody else mess with what he has done."
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
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