Alton Williams Yearbook PhotoGetting tossed out of class during his junior year of high school may have been the best thing that ever happened to Alton Williams.

A star in football and track at P.S. DuPont High School in Wilmington, Del., in the late 1960s, Williams had mouthed off to a study hall teacher – something out of character for the youngster at the time - and was sent to the principal’s office.

“While I was sitting in the principal’s vestibule, I spotted a catalog of this profession called optometry,” recalled Williams, OD ’73. “I could barely pronounce the word. The principal called me into his office and said, ‘If you ever do this to one of my teachers again, you’re out of my school.’ Immediately, I asked if I could hold onto the catalog and he said, ‘Take that and get out of here.’ And, from that moment, the seed was planted that I could possibly achieve the goal of being an optometrist.”

From then on, Williams’ focus was lining up his academic courses that would lead him to a career in optometry. The journey continued after high school, where he completed his preliminary courses for two years at the University of Delaware. After that, he had his eyes set on the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO).

Williams’ uncle and mentor, Dr. James Williams, had recently finished medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and was completing a residency in urology at Philadelphia General Hospital. The younger Williams thought it would be a good idea to take his uncle along on his interview at PCO.

“We went up and met a wonderful gentleman by the name of Dr. John J. Crozier, OD ’48, the dean of students at the time,” said Dr. Williams. “He was very kind and quite accommodating. He welcomed us into the office and told us about all the grand and glorious things that the school was involved in. He painted a vision.”

But Dr. Williams had a burning question for Dr. Crozier. “How many black students do you presently have on campus?”

“He threw his head back and started to count . . . ‘One, two, three . . . we have three black students’ he said. I said, ‘Three? That’s it? Then we both have an opportunity here,’” said Dr. Williams. “I told the dean I was a prepared student and the school had a serious need. He thought that was brash at the time, and in retrospect, I think it was quite bold as well. Dr. Crozier brought that to my attention, on several occasions, after that.”

Dr. Crozier accepted Dr. Williams into PCO on the spot. “We commence the Class of 1973 in August. Will you be here?” Dr. Williams recalled Dr. Crozier saying to him. He would indeed be there, he assured Dr. Crozier.

Alton Williams Eye ExamOn his first day at PCO, Dr. Williams purposely timed it so that he would be a few minutes late for orientation. He wanted to see how many other African-Americans were in his class.

“When I hit the back door of the lecture hall to find my seat, Dr. Crozier recognized me and said, ‘Hi Mr. Williams, how are you? Come in and take a seat.’ I noticed about five or six students sporting different afro hairstyles and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not going to be the only brother here,’” said Dr. Williams. “But when everyone turned around to look at me when Dr. Crozier said hello, what I discovered was that many of my Jewish colleagues were wearing afros. It hit me that I was the only African-American in the class.”

In addition to completing his Bachelor of Science and his Doctor of Optometry degrees at PCO, Dr. Williams was also active in trying to recruit other African-Americans to come to PCO. In an effort to increase the number of minority students, Dr. Williams joined forces with other black students, all of whom were ahead of him at PCO. That included J. Alphonso “Jim” Dandy, OD ’72; Nathanial Robinson, OD ’72; and Edward Fletcher, who had matriculated to PCO the year after Williams.

The four of them asked and received money from PCO for a recruiting trip in 1970, traveling to historically black college and universities like Howard University, Virginia State University, several schools in North Carolina, and Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. While the success of the recruiting effort was modest, the trip was the beginning of what would become a lifetime pursuit by Dr. Williams of getting African-American students interested in pursuing optometry as a profession.

Alton Williams in PracticeAfter graduating in 1973, Dr. Williams returned to his home state of Delaware, where he became the first African-American optometrist in the state’s history. In addition to his practice, in which he is still active three days a week now, Dr. Williams became involved with the state optometric association and was the chief architect of The Nemours Foundation’s effort to offer eye care services at the Nemours Health Clinic in Wilmington, Del.  

He is also the author of “O.D. – Out of Darkness,” a book about faith that has allowed him to bring other optometrists of like faith together and to lead many out of darkness.

“The book is very personal, but I had to tell the story. Once I gave my life to this endeavor and to the Lord, everything started crystalizing for me,” said Dr. Williams, who is also an ordained minister. “I talk about my mentors, Dr. John Crozier, Dr. Norm Wallis, Dr. Robert Johnson out of Chicago, Dr. James Washington out of East Orange, N.J., Dr. J. Alphonso Dandy, Dr. Neal Draizen in South Carolina, these people in my life who were pivotal in my growth and development as an optometrist and also as a spiritual leader as well.”

Alton Williams NowDr. Williams has no plans to retire anytime soon.

“I’m having too much fun. I start my day on a high, you end on a high. I have 20 different experiences with 20 different people during the course of my day. I’ve impacted their life and they’ve ceded that love and care and concern back into my life,” he said. “Where do you go for that kind of daily refreshing and why do I want to give that up to sit in a rocking chair or click a remote all day? I’m going to hold onto it for as long as I can, but I won’t be foolish about it. When it’s time to go, I will go.”

His time at PCO left a huge impact on him, he said, and that has carried through for the rest of his life.

“PCO taught me that as a community, we can and should look out after one another,” said Dr. Williams.  “As the only African-American student in my class, that class opened up to me, my immediate colleagues opened up to me, the administration opened up to me, and I did not feel alone in this process of becoming an optometrist. It was a beautiful experience and always has been.”