Century-old tradition

Bear family is a mainstay
in Madison optometry

Several generations keep business going

By Michella M. Marino
Contributing Writer

(July 2007) – Anything that has lasted a full century certainly has rich traditions behind it. This is definitely the case with the local Bear family, which has provided eye doctor services to the Madison community for the past continuous 100 years through Oscar Bear, Bill Bear and, for a brief stint this summer, Julie Ferguson.

Dr. Bill Bear and Robert kirkpatrick

Photo by Michella Marino

Dr. Bill Bear (left) of Madison, poses
with Madison optometrist Robert
Kirkpatrick, a partner and protege.

The late Oscar C. Bear was born in 1885 on a farm in Brooksburg, Ind., seven miles east of Madison. Bear was raised in Jefferson County, and at age 19 he left to go to school in Milwaukee to become a telegrapher. Bear attended school for one year but decided it was a boring profession that would lead him down a dead end, so he returned home.
He was a good mechanic and in 1907 decided to take an apprenticeship from a local jeweler and optician named Mr. Toule. These were the days when dealing with jewelry and eye glasses often went hand in hand due to the similar tools that were used for each profession.
Five years later, Bear bought out Mr. Toule and went into business on his own. In 1918, he set up his jewelry store and optometry center on Main Street. Bear’s son, Bill, said, “My father was a jewelry store optometrist. He fits specs out of trial cases. He didn’t have any modern equipment.”
From 1926-1928, the elder Bear made his own eye glasses until optical labs became popular, and then Bear could send eye glass prescriptions to Indianapolis. While Bear honed his skills as a jeweler and optician, he was also concerned with his customers and patients.
“He liked people,” Bear said of his father. “He was a people person, and he treated people well.”
Oscar Bear continued actively in business until 1974, when he developed some problems with arthritis and vision loss. By this time, the younger Bear had already become an optometrist and was also practicing in Madison.
“We were both optometrists for a while but were not competitive,” Bill said. “He had cut down a lot, so he sent customers over to me.”
Bill Bear, born in 1930, decided as a sophomore in college at Indiana University that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Unfortunately, IU did not have an optometry school at this time. So in spring 1952, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from IU, Bill headed out to Pacific University in Oregon to complete a three-year degree to become an eye doctor.
After successfully completing his goal, Bill returned to Madison to establish an optometry practice. His first office was located on Mulberry Street. After practicing for many years, Bear took on a partnership with Dr. Mike Thomas in 1973. That partnership lasted for six years.
In 1983, he took another partner, Dr. Robert Kirkpatrick, with whom he still works part time. Kirkpatrick purchased Bear’s half of their business in 1995, and Bear still works on Mondays and Fridays at Kirkpatrick Eye Care, 2580 Michigan Rd., Ste. 2. He plans to continue working there for another year.
As a youngster, Kirkpatrick knew both of the Bear optometrists and said he was particularly influenced by Bill. “He’s one reason I became an eye doctor. He was a mentor to me.”
Now as a fellow doctor, Kirkpatrick understands the importance of Bill’s people skills. “His patients are not patients. They’re friends. He provides emotional support and is always there to talk,” Kirkpatrick said.
While Bill was a mentor to Kirkpatrick, Oscar Bear was a mentor to Bill. He learned many lessons from his father, which he then put into his own practice as an eye doctor.
“My father taught me to always be honest and to tell people what you find. You also have to walk the second mile with them. Always satisfy the patient or customer.”
These words of wisdom have stood the test of time, although the optometry field has changed immensely in the 50-plus years Bill has been practicing. When he began, Bill was basically fitting glasses and contacts and working with refraction. After 1965, optometrists, himself included, became better qualified to do medical diagnosis and primary treatment.
The field has expanded to include intelligent referrals concerning cataracts and evaluating diabetics. It is certainly more of a medical practice involving diagnosis and treatment as opposed to fitting a pair of spectacles.
Now as Bear is winding down with his career, one of his granddaughters is picking up where he is leaving off. Julie Ferguson worked in high school and college in her grandfather’s optometry practice. She committed in her second year of undergraduate school at IU to continue on to the IU School of Optometry.
Ferguson just recently finished her residency in ocular disease at a veteran’s hospital in St. Louis but will be working for Kirkpatrick’s office for a while in July and August prior to getting married in the fall and moving to Missouri.
Kirkpatrick said he is looking forward to having her expertise around, even if it’s just for a short time. Bear is also excited about Ferguson’s completion of optometry school and her residency.
As any devoted grandfather might say, “I’m real proud of Julie to carry on the tradition.”

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