A Stumble into the Right Direction: Dr. Thomas Lewis
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A Stumble into the Right Direction: Dr. Thomas Lewis

Tom Lewis as a Young StudentSome create their career paths, others happen to accidentally fall into their career, but a select few are destined – they just have to follow it and have faith. Thomas L. Lewis, OD ’70, PhD, FAAO, president emeritus of Salus University and professor in the University’s Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), is the latter.  

Dr. Lewis never aspired to hold academic leadership positions, let alone end up as PCO’s president for more than 24 years. “When I first got into optometry, I thought it was sort of boring because at the time you couldn’t do all that optometry does now,” he said. As a student, Dr. Lewis gave in-class presentations that were so good his classmates encouraged him to pursue his PhD. Soon after becoming a PCO faculty member, he was subsequently thrust into administration; first as division director (department chairman) which led to being chief of staff at The Eye Institute (TEI), then interim vice president and dean of Academic Affairs, permanent vice president and dean and finally president of PCO, which he held until 2013.

During his tenure as president, Dr. Lewis initiated significant changes that make Salus and PCO what it is today. Just as the original Pennsylvania State College of Optometry founder Dr. Albert Fitch had the foresight and determination to make optometry a leader in contemporary healthcare delivery, Dr. Lewis continued to look at the role optometry could play among the broader healthcare industry.

It was he who oversaw the establishment of a new campus – and move – to Elkins Park, Pa. from Philadelphia in 1994, the development and building of a new student center, Hafter Student Community Center, and a more than $11 million renovation and expansion of  The Eye Institute.  It was also under his leadership that PCO continued to expand its programs in health sciences to include Audiology, Physician Assistant Studies, Master of Public Health, Occupational Therapy, and Doctor of Philosophy in Biomedicine. He spearheaded PCO to apply for University status with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, so that the newly integrated programs would work in unison under the new umbrella institution of Salus University. 

Dr. Thomas Lewis holding an award

While he is proud of what was accomplished during his tenure, he is the first to mention that it took a “village” as well as the right opportunities at the right time. “You have to have a vision, but many of these things happened by happen-stance. If an opportunity comes by, you have to recognize the opportunity, and seize it to make something with it,” he said. “We were fortunate to make enough good decisions.”  

Drs. Lewis and Mittelman and wivesAlthough presidency wasn’t what he had originally strived for, and just happened to occur, it’s not something he regrets. “I truly enjoyed the role and believe we accomplished a few important things for the institution and the profession,” Dr. Lewis said. In 2013, he officially stepped down as president and went on a year sabbatical leave.

It wasn’t long before he was back at Salus ready to teach again on a part-time basis. He continues to teach courses such as general anatomy histology; ocular anatomy and histology; and clinical problem solving. While the students he teaches today may not fully realize whose presence they are in when they attend his classes, they continue to reap the benefits of his extraordinary vision of optometry’s role in the interprofessional delivery of healthcare.

Earlier this year, Dr. Lewis was honored with the 2018 Career Achievement Award by the Review of Optometry at the Southeastern Educational Congress of Optometry (SECO) conference in Atlanta, Ga. Prior to this award, in 2009 he received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO) in recognition of his leadership and contributions to the profession.  He is also a past president and fellow of the American Academy of Optometry as well as a past president of ASCO and the Partnership Foundation for Optometric Education.

Dr. Thomas Lewis holding an award