It was the Roaring Twenties of the last century and Harold Simmerman, OD ‘30, FAAO
, was taking the train from his home in New Jersey to College Park, Maryland, and the University of Maryland to study biology.
When the train stopped in Delaware to pick up more passengers, Sydney Smith, OD ‘30
, got on the train, also on his way to the University of Maryland. The two struck up a conversation, discovered they were both attending the same college, and became friends.
During one of those subsequent train rides to Maryland, Dr. Smith told Dr. Simmerman there was a new profession emerging called optometry, and students could be trained at the Pennsylvania State College of Optometry (PSCO) in Philadelphia.
That conversation became the initial seed for what would become three generations of the Simmerman family of optometrists trained at PSCO, later renamed the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) that spanned nearly the entire evolution of the profession of optometry.
Both Drs. Simmerman and Smith — who would form a lifelong friendship — would go on to PCO under the tutelage of the school’s founder, Dr. Albert Fitch.
After graduating from PSCO, Dr. Simmerman opened a private practice in New Jersey. To supplement his income while his practice was growing, he accepted an offer from Dr. Fitch to teach ocular pathology at PSCO, which he would do for the next 38 years, finishing out his tenure there as acting dean of PCO for two years in 1969 and 1970.
Dr. Simmerman, known as “Simmy” by colleagues and friends, loved teaching, and his interest in education expanded beyond PCO. He was elected to his local school board in New Jersey and served in that capacity for nearly 40 years, at one time the longest-serving school board member in the state.
Between his private practice and his teaching, Dr. Simmerman was quite busy. He’d teach during the day, have office hours three nights a week and sometimes make house calls on the weekend. He even found time to play golf, do some stargazing and be involved in the Rotary Club.
Dr. Simmerman’s two sons, H. Martin “Marty” Simmerman, OD ‘62, FAAO
, and Steven Simmerman, OD ‘65, FAAO
, would follow him not only at PCO but also into the family business.
When Steven Simmerman was a boy, he recalls some of those house calls his father would make, adjusting glasses for those who couldn’t make it into the office. Dr. Simmerman would stop by the office to pick up his sand bath — a rectangular device filled with sand that optometrists used in those days. It had a heating element that would heat the sand, into which the optometrist would dip the plastic or metal frames to soften them up so they could be adjusted into the right shape to fit the patient.
The elder Dr. Simmerman would also bring his son into the office and perform refractions on him, and while there, Steven would be fascinated by the equipment the optometrists used.
“Between going on those house calls and into the office with him, as well has having a good relationship with my dad, that’s what prompted me to go into optometry,” said Dr. Steven Simmerman. His brother, Dr. Marty Simmerman, would precede Dr. Steven Simmerman and be the first to join the family business in New Jersey.
While at PCO, Steven first lived with five other students in Crozier Hall, which in the early 1960s was ruled by Ethel Crozier, wife of John E. Crozier, OD, FAAO
, who was a member of the PSCO Board of Trustees from 1930 to 1939.
“Mrs. Crozier ruled with an iron fist. She would go shopping for us and we would cook our own meals. And she had no reservations about telling us that we weren’t cleaning up properly,” said Dr. Steven Simmerman.
Dr. Simmerman also participated in intramural sports and proudly recalls being on the football team that was undefeated during his four years at PCO. He also became good friends with Donald Fitch, OD ‘65
, son of then-PCO president Lawrence Fitch, OD ‘36
, and grandson of the school’s founder.
It was during those years at school that Dr. Simmerman met Janet Hall, whom he married in 1963. Three children followed — Laura, Steven Jr. and Lorna.
After graduation, Dr. Simmerman went into business with his father and brother. And, it would be his youngest daughter, Lorna H. Simmerman, OD ‘98
, who would eventually pick up the baton and continue the family legacy at PCO. Her grandfather saw her graduate from PCO before his death later that year, and her father placed the colors on her at the ceremony.
“I always wanted to be able to be independent and be able to take care of myself. I was fortunate to be raised in a very comfortable family with my dad being an optometrist,” said Dr. Lorna Simmerman. “I always enjoyed the science side of things as well, so I asked my dad if I could come into work with him a couple of times during my high school years.”
She then decided she wanted to be an optometrist. “You are helping people, it is interesting and everyone’s case is different,” she said. She also noted the flexible work-life balance. The tradition of carrying on the Simmerman name in optometry (her married name is Charnock) was also a strong enticement.
“I think I really have kept the values that my grandfather and my father had with optometry, part of the old-fashioned approach of really getting to know your patients over time and building a relationship with them,” she said.
“I was very happy that my grandfather was able to see me graduate. I think he would be amazed at all the things that I’m doing now, working with ophthalmology and all the ocular disease I see and treat as well and how much optometry has progressed.”
Dr. Lorna Simmerman joined the family business with her father and uncle, who passed away in April 2020. Dr. Marty Simmerman developed a good patient following while in the family business, and spent his leisure time as an avid outdoorsman and craftsman. Janet Simmerman also worked in the family office performing field tests on patients. Dr. Lorna Simmerman now works at Delaware Eye Surgeons in Wilmington, Delaware, for a cornea and cataract specialist. The business was eventually sold to Richard Floyd, OD ‘88
, who while at PCO had an externship with the Simmerman practice.
Dr. Steven Simmerman, who would also eventually serve on the PCO Board of Trustees for a period during the tenure of president Melvin Wolfberg, OD ‘51, FAAO
(1979 to 1989), retired in 2015. A longtime nature-lover and stargazer, he had also followed in his father’s footsteps in the classroom, albeit in a different area. He was an instructor at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, for 25 years teaching Introduction to Astronomy.
“My dad also was a nature-lover, and he would photograph clouds. Growing up, he bought me my first telescope. He had taken an astronomy course at the University of Maryland and he became a star-gazer,” said Dr. Steven Simmerman.
But Dr. Lorna Simmerman may be the last to continue the family’s legacy in optometry. At this point, none of the current generation is headed in that direction.
“It makes me sad that I think I’m the last generation of optometrists in the family. Patients are always very impressed when they see my bio and realize I’m third generation. It means a lot,” said Dr. Lorna Simmerman. “That’s why I kept the name, as I’m proud that I’m a third generation Dr. Simmerman,” she said. “It was too hard to give that up.”