In fall 1966, a young student from Orlando arrived at the University of Houston College of Optometry (UHCO), seldom thinking that this will be his home for the next 52 years. As Dr. Roger Boltz, Associate Dean for Finance & Administration, gets packing with his family, three 100 pound dogs and two parrots to retire in the little town of Black Mountain, North Carolina, he candidly talks about his tenure at UHCO.
When did you first step foot on campus?
I came to campus starting my undergraduate studies in 1966 and optometry in 1968. During that time, programs were completely different and you could get into optometry school with just two years of undergraduate work. You had to take a prescribed curriculum of courses and everybody came in with just two years of undergraduate courses. After the first two years of optometry, you received a B.S. in Optometry. I got my B.S. in 1968 and later earned my O.D. in 1972.
I am originally from Orlando, Florida, and came to Houston to go to optometry school. The two closest colleges for me at that time were the Southern College in Memphis, a private school that was expensive and the other was UHCO. It was easier for me to go ahead and choose Houston. Even as a non-resident, it was still cheaper to do my undergraduate degree here than going to the University of Florida.
What got you interested in optometry?
I had worn glasses for a long time, enjoyed the sciences and often visited an optometrist for many years and thought it was an interesting profession. I have worn glasses since 9 or 10 and it seemed like a nice way to make a living.
How was the class size then?
We had a class of around 60. There were two women in the class of 1968, one African American student, a few Hispanics, no Asians and the rest were white males of draft age. We were housed in what used to be the Naval Reserve Training Facility on Cullen and Wheeler. It was a two-storied wood frame building, we occupied half and the Arts department took the rest. This place had just the clinic and teaching labs. We took all our classes and labs on campus. Dr. Chester Pfeiffer was the Dean at that time and compared to things now, optometry was pretty crude. The equipment we had and the way optometry was practiced was old. It is far superior now compared to the late sixties.
What led you to teaching?
I worked as a Teaching Assistant at UHCO and I liked that and I also did some informal tutoring as an undergrad teaching mostly math classes free for those in need. When I got ready to graduate in 1972, the Vietnam War was going on and they had the doctor’s draft which was separate from the general draft. In 1971, they drafted somewhere up into the 200s. My draft number was 98 and so I thought of joining the army as an optometrist so that I didn’t have to go into private practice and then get drafted out a year later or so. While in the Army, one day, I did an exam on a young GI and wrote him a prescription. I couldn’t remember a thing of what I said to him or what he said to me and I felt it was just so automatic. I thought to myself and felt I didn’t want to do this for the next 40 years. It just wasn’t intellectually stimulating and so it got me thinking of going into education and clinical care didn’t appeal to me.
I got out of the army in August 1974, returned as a graduate student to UHCO, earned a master’s degree and later got my Ph.D. I had always done teaching in my career both as a graduate student and as a faculty member. Over the years, I have taught half the classes in the curriculum. I always taught in labs and then I volunteered to teach in the contact lens clinic and had a good time as I enjoyed patient care as well.
I always liked standing up in front of a group of people and talking, an acquired taste for most people. Once you get over the fear of public speaking, it’s actually enjoyable. Once, I took a senior level course in neurobiology and graduate students in the course had to deliver a lecture and I stood up and talked about what I knew and didn’t need any preparation for it. I could just talk about it and knew it well enough and people followed it and made sense of what I said. This idea that you can explain something and they can follow it made it interesting and if they didn’t get it, I always asked how I could make this more understandable. I would remember the concepts that were hard for me and I tried to figure out how I could make it easy for my students.
Tell us about your fascination for contact lenses?
Contact lenses were the closest you could get to medical optometry at that time. Optometry during those days was a drugless profession. We didn’t dilate patients and we didn’t use local anesthetics for tonometry but contact lenses were an area where you could manipulate the physiology. That was the reason I chose contact lenses as it was more interesting and it brought in the optics, the patient care, the physiology and the pathology rolled into one.
In 1970, the first commercially available contact lens came out and Bausch & Lomb brought the product into the market in 1973. There were just PMMA lenses at that time and they were made of plastic and were not gas permeable.
This caused lots of corneal changes, edema and adverse reactions.
I was curious to learn more about the fitting of the lenses, the relationship between the lens and the eye and how the eye reacted to the lens was critical. Later, soft lenses came out and it became popular with lots of innovations in material and care systems and it was an exciting time. I wore them at that time and to me they were comfortable. When I put the first lens on, they were not very comfortable, but over a couple of weeks, you adapted and the lenses were not noticeable. During those days, optometry was not the profession it is today. In our clinical facility, none of the exam rooms had a place to wash hands, and none of them had slit lamps. We had a separate room that had about 6 slit lamps in it and another dark room with a couple of comfy chairs in it. We called this the crying room! We would put a diagnostic lens on the patient and would sit them there for 20minutes or so that tearing would subside and then took them to the room which actually had slit lamps. Compared to how we do things now it was very primitive.. Initially, the lenses those days were uncomfortable, but once it was fitted, they worked well in a week’s time.
When did you move into administration?
I joined as a faculty member in 1978 and got into administration gradually and became Associate Dean in 1991. At that time, we had clinical course masters who were responsible for student affairs, scheduling, counseling etc. . .I also served on some university committees and was the Chair of the Academic Committee for a decade. When then dean, Dr. Bill Baldwin retired, and when Dr. Jerry Strickland became Dean, he appointed me as Acting Dean for Professional Studies in 1991. Since 1991, that’s what I’ve been doing primarily. Until I was Dean, I taught a variety of courses on vision science, contact lens etc. Later, Dr. Judy Perrigin took over the contact lens courses as I couldn’t do it all!
Tell us about a couple of funny things that stood out during your tenure here?
During those days, the contact lens clinic was configured in a different way that we had we had two long hallways that ran perpendicular to each other and there was a consulting room in the back. One of my students had a room in a corner. One day, I was in the consulting room with the rest of the faculty and I hear this student yelling in a high voice repeatedly saying: “jump!.” I felt there was something odd and when I looked in the room . I saw a motorized chair with the patient on it going up and the student didn’t know how to turn it off. He thought the chair would go all the way up to the ceiling and was asking the patient to jump off the chair!
Another incident I remember vividly was with one of my students, who looked like and had the mannerisms of Peter Lorre, a character actor who appeared in many Humphrey Bogart movies.. Because of this, the faculty wondered how patients reacted to him. One day, I assigned him to do a vision exam on my wife and my plan was to ask my wife what she thought of his patient interaction. He did the exam and as it came to the end to dilate her, I said, “I’ll take it from here.” Typically, faculty never does that and he was worried he had done something terribly wrong. I then explained that she was my wife, and not to worry; he had done fine.. I later asked my wife what she thought of him as a clinician. She said he was a little different but was just fine.
A week later, my ex-wife came for an eye exam and I assigned him to take care of her. He came to me and said: “That was your wife last week and now it’s your ex-wife this week. You want me to do a bad job?” I thought this guy would be just fine when he showed his sense of humor!
What are the incidents that have touched you the most?
I’ve always been saddened by the passing away of some of our students and faculty during my tenure here. For instance, Dr. Harris Neusenblatt died of lung cancer but he was never a smoker. The demise of Dr. Karen Fern’s husband from cancer was also deeply touching. I remember sailing in the Virgin Islands shortly after they were married. The sad demise of faculty member, Dr. Deborah Adler-Grinberg and the accidental death of student, Raven Black have all deeply touched me over the years.
What will you miss most?
In a good way or bad way? My goal in life now is not to be in charge of anything but me! So, when people seek my advice about going into administration, I tell them that when you go into administration you’ve got to put your agenda on hold because what you are doing is for the institution not for yourself. Some of the things may not be personally satisfying but they are worthwhile for the institution and so it will be nice not to have to respond to institutional needs. One of the most frustrating things I found about administration is that you can seldom work on one thing and see it to completion. You are always working on something and so you can’t just stop and say you are done with that. You are always working on nine or ten things at the same time and one will end but you still have nine floating around.
In terms of the good things, I will miss the people here.
Earl and I have known each other since 1968 and we were in the same optometry class…it’s 50 years, Sam (Dr. Quintero) was in the same class as well. I’ve just known a lot of people for a really long time. So I will miss that.
One of my goals in administration was always to try and keep administration and the bureaucracy off the backs of the faculty. Essentially, I wanted faculty to do their work and I always tried to make it as seamless as possible. I can’t remember who said that the sign of a good administrator is that people don’t really know what you do and everything seems to get done, but there is a kernel of truth to it.
Tell us about your role with the American Council of Optometric Education (ACOE) board?
ACOE is an 11 member board and it is responsible for accrediting all the optometry programs, residency programs and optometric technician programs in the nation. I was initially invited to be a consultant to the group and later they nominated me to serve on the Council. This was a great group to work with and I always loved doing that. I always got more out of it than I put into it. Former Dean, Jerry Strickland used to refer it as the “best free advice a school could get.”
How do you define your legacy?
I have no idea. My concern is that I do a lot of stuff I don’t know who the hell would do it once I leave. I feel I’ve I helped the place run, advance and helped make it the best school that it can be. Personally, if people have good thoughts when they hear my name, that will be enough.