According to Michael DePaolis, OD ‘82
, being named a Presidential Medal of Honor recipient is a little like winning an Academy Award.
“It’s an honor, but you don’t want to forget to thank people,” said Dr. DePaolis.
Since his graduation from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), many influential people made an impact on his career and several were previous Presidential Medal of Honor awardees. Among them are the late Harry Kaplan, OD ‘49, FAAO
, who was a nationally recognized contact lens specialist and faculty member at PCO for 52 years before his death in 2020; Joel Silbert, OD ‘73, FAAO
, a prior Presidential Medal of Honor recipient, who was in on the ground floor of advancing the profession of optometry and spent over 46 years at PCO/Salus prior to his retirement in 2020; Thomas Lewis, OD ‘70, PhD, FAAO
, a prior Presidential Medal of Honor and PCO/Salus president from 1989 to 2013, who initiated significant changes to the institution making it what it is today; Linda Casser, OD, FAAO, FNAP, former PCO/Salus dean who was Dr. DePaolis’ module chief when he was a third-year Doctor of Optometry student; and Joseph Shovlin, OD ‘80, FAAO
, a prior Presidential Medal of Honor recipient, who also served as an intern mentor for Dr. DePaolis when the two worked together early in their respective careers.
“Those individuals played a large role when I was a student at PCO,” he said.
It was Dr. Shovlin who nominated Dr. DePaolis for the Presidential Medal award.
“I cannot think of anyone more qualified in terms of professionalism, skill, and dedication to our profession than this gentleman of great integrity and ability,” Dr. Shovlin wrote to the nominating committee. “He exemplifies what is necessary to be an effective leader in both stature and prominence. He has had a productive career with many lifelong achievements, incredible leadership qualities and experience, and most notably a lasting impact on the profession and in particular, our University.”
A native of Rochester, New York, when Dr. DePaolis was a high school senior he still hadn’t decided on a career path as expected by many peers of that age. But, his father helped coordinate several professional shadowing opportunities, one of those being with an ophthalmologist.
“And, then the next day I spent with the optometrist in the same practice, it just felt right as a career path for me,” said Dr. DePaolis.
With that in mind, he headed to St. John Fisher University in Rochester as a math major. But along with his advisor, his curriculum was designed so he could complete his undergraduate degree in three years with a head start on optometry school.
He applied and was accepted into multiple optometry programs, but it was PCO that caught his attention.
“A lot of the schools were still very much steeped in the traditional optometric model — all about refractive eye care and functional vision — while PCO stood out as an institution that envisioned optometry’s scope to be so much more than it was at the time,” said Dr. DePaolis.
When he looked at the PCO curriculum, he knew that was where he wanted to be. “I just felt like I was on the cusp of something that was going to be great for our profession going forward,” said Dr. DePaolis. “You don’t always make the right decisions, none of us do but it was the right decision for me.”
After graduating from PCO, Dr. DePaolis joined Robert Morrison, OD ‘48
, also a prior Presidential Medal of Honor recipient, at Morrison Associates, a large contact lens practice in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He was there for four years, working alongside Dr. Shovlin at the time.
“PCO prepared me so well for that transition into a contact lens specialty practice. And, Morrison Associates was the ideal place to blend specialty contact lens practice with cornea and anterior segment care,” he said. “There was a lot of overlap and I felt that my optometric medical training at PCO prepared me well for being able to take care of those patients.”
But Rochester was calling him and he was ready to head back home. Dr. DePaolis joined the corneal specialty practice of James Aquavella, MD. A few years later, Dr. DePaolis was joined by another PCO grad, Robert Ryan, OD ‘89
, who also joined Dr. Aquavella.
Four years later, when Dr. Aquavella decided to sell his practice, the two PCO grads set up their own private practice in Rochester - Visionary Eye Associates - which ultimately grew to include four optometrists and a large support staff spanning two offices.
Visionary Eye Associates operated until 2016, when it was acquired by the University of Rochester’s Flaum Eye Institute. Dr. DePaolis now serves as an associate professor of Clinical Ophthalmology at Flaum Eye Institute. He sees patients four days a week and works with the institute’s ophthalmology residents. In 2023, he anticipates the arrival of the institute’s first optometry resident. He also serves at the ophthalmology department’s liaison to the university’s clinical trials review boards.
And, for the past 25 years, he has served as optometric editor of Primary Care Optometry News, a Healio Inc. publication.
“Even back in the early 1980s, PCO viewed optometry as a primary eye care profession, a philosophy that has served me well in my editorial role,” he said.
He and his wife Gale have three adult children, Alec, Caroline and Tyler. “I’m grateful for my family as they’ve been a great source of joy and pride through the years,” he said.
Dr. DePaolis, who has authored more than 100 articles, papers, and textbook chapters, and has lectured at more than 600 eye care symposia, is the 2007 recipient of the American Optometric Association Contact Lens & Cornea Section Luminary Award for Distinguished Practice and the 2010 New York State Optometric Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award.
For now, he has no plans to retire. And, he’s thrilled and humbled to be named a Presidential Medal of Honor awardee.
“I know it sounds a little cliché, but the institution has meant so much to me through the years,” said Dr. DePaolis. “And, when I look at the other presidential award winners, it truly is an honor.”