Drs. James Caldwell and John J. Crozier
– affectionately known as “Dr. John” around the halls of the University’s Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) – were having lunch one day when Dr. John suggested the two go down to the old campus and “go shopping.”
It was 1998 and PCO had recently moved from the Oak Lane location – the “old campus,” which still includes The Eye Institute now - to the newly purchased Elkins Park campus. When faculty and staff relocated, they were told to take with them only what was absolutely needed and to not move anything unnecessarily.
Whatever was left – desks, tables, chairs, file cabinets and the like – was gathered up and put into what was the library in Fitch Hall of the old campus. An email was then sent to faculty and staff that if they wanted anything else, they had a couple of days to put a post-it note on items they wanted moved to the new campus. Anything that wasn’t tagged was headed for the scrap heap.
Dr. John was looking for a small table for his office and Dr. Caldwell needed a file cabinet for his office. Hence the suggestion by Dr. John to “go shopping” in the old campus library where the discarded furniture possibilities were gathering dust before being entirely discarded.
“So we went down to the campus and were walking around looking at what was there,” recalled Dr. Caldwell, the current dean of Student Affairs at Salus University. “I remember that Dr. John froze in his footsteps and got this look on his face. I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘Do you know whose desk that is?’”
Dr. Caldwell looked at the desk, but he had no idea what Dr. John was talking about.
“That’s Albert Fitch’s desk!” Dr. Caldwell recalled Dr. John saying. “He couldn’t believe it. He walked all around it and looked at it and said, ‘I know this is Albert Fitch’s desk. I remember coming to the campus and seeing Albert at this desk. This has to be saved.’”
Drs. Albert Fitch
and John E. Crozier
– Dr. John’s father – were the pillars of what became the Pennsylvania State College of Optometry (PSCO), later changed to Pennsylvania College of Optometry in (PCO) in 1964. Dr. Fitch was the institution’s first president and Dr. John E. Crozier was a member of the PSCO’s Board of Trustees from 1930 to 1939.
As a result, Dr. John tagged the Fitch desk – it was pretty worn and a little beat up - and had it transported to his Elkins Park, Pa. office. According to Dr. Caldwell, Dr. John did some research and discovered by talking to people in the maintenance and housekeeping departments that the desk had been sitting in one of the research labs in Crozier Hall, hidden in the corner of the room and covered by boxes, books and papers.
“Dr. John was very surprised to see that the desk was still sort of functional,” said Dr. Caldwell. “Knowing what it was, he was curious to find out how it could have been out of circulation for so long. What he was able to piece together was that apparently the desk was in a research lab and nobody knew what it was. That’s how it ended up in the potential discard pile.”
There is some evidence in the 1962 Iris – PCO’s yearbook until 2014 when it ceased being published by the University – that after Dr. Albert Fitch died in 1960, the desk was used by his son, Dr. Lawrence Fitch
, who was PCO’s president from 1960 to 1972. But to this point, the exact whereabouts of the desk seemed to have been unaccounted for from 1972 until Dr. John re-discovered it in 1998.
Drs. John and Caldwell took some furniture polish and shined up the Fitch desk as best they could, and Dr. John used it in his office from 1998 until his death in 2004.
“Dr. John loved the history of the institution and he loved history in general,” said Dr. Caldwell. “For him to have Albert Fitch’s desk and that part of the history of the institution . . . he very proudly used that desk. I remember him saying that when the time came that he was no longer at the institution, ‘Make sure you preserve and protect that desk.’ I promised him I would keep an eye on the desk.”
And, that’s exactly what happened after Dr. John’s death. At the time, Dr. Caldwell was director of Admissions and the desk was moved to his office in the first-floor suite.
“To have a piece of history like that in my office was really meaningful to me,” said Dr. Caldwell.
Several years later, Dr. Caldwell was named dean of Student Affairs and the Fitch desk travelled with him. But it had even more wear and tear from continued years of use. At one point, Dr. Caldwell looked through a catalog of new office furniture, but he preferred to keep the Fitch desk in use. He decided to check into what it would cost to refurbish the desk as compared to buying a new one.
Fortunately, refurbishing the desk was more cost-effective. And, in the spring of 2012, the Fitch desk was sent out to be repaired. When it came back several weeks later, it looked good.
“They did a fantastic job. It was essentially brand new when they brought it back,” said Dr. Caldwell. “The only thing I requested is that they put glass on the top, to preserve the integrity of the surface. But it’s a great desk. It’s large in size and provides ample work space. Sometimes people will come in and comment on it, and I have fun telling them that it’s part of institutional history.”
That isn’t the only thing now in Dr. Caldwell’s office that salutes the history of PCO and Salus University. Among the other historical artifacts are four chairs from the 1950s that Dr. Albert Fitch used around a small table in his office; a signed copy of Dr. Fitch’s book “My 50 Years in Optometry” inscribed to Dr. John; and a two-volume set of higher education books that Dr. John left to Dr. Caldwell.
But it’s the link to the founding of the institution and the magnitude of what the PCO giants who have used the desk accomplished that sticks with Dr. Caldwell, and why he enjoys passing the story on to subsequent generations.
“Dr. John was a mentor for me and basically the whole reason I have a career at this institution,” said Dr. Caldwell. “I used to joke that when we were putting the documents together to create Salus University, it was a neat experience for me to be part of that team and contributing to the work of moving the institution forward while sitting at the same desk that the founder used many years ago. To just come to work every day and sit at the desk where two great leaders of the institution have sat. I certainly know that coming to work every day and sitting at the desk where two great leaders of the institution have sat doesn’t put me in the same category as them, but I often chuckle to myself and say ‘hopefully they’re helping me make good decisions,’ because of the energy and mojo of the desk.”