Counterculture of the 1960s Provided PCO Grad Some Unique Experiences
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Counterculture of the 1960s Provided PCO Grad Some Unique Experiences

Charles Klein

When Charles Klein, OD 67, arrived at the Pennsylvania State College of Optometry (PSCO) in 1963, the Philadelphia area was becoming a hotbed of political and civil change, with a vibrant emerging folk music scene.

Dr. Klein, however, discovered that PSCO — which would shorten its name to the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) the very next year in 1964 — wasn’t quite as progressive when he arrived on campus from his home in the Bronx, New York, with longish hair.

His hair did not escape the notice of University president (1960 to 1972) Lawrence Fitch, OD 36.

Charles Klein as a student“He called me into the office one day and said ‘You are not adhering to our rules of personal and professional appearance (which included wearing a jacket and tie). And, you will get a haircut,” recalled Dr. Klein. “His exact words were, ‘Over my dead body will a hippie ever graduate from my school.’”

Dr. Klein tried to resist. He asked Dr. Fitch, “Professional appearance is a subjective determination and I have no way of measuring that. How am I supposed to know what you mean?”

“We will tell you,” was Dr. Fitch’s firm response.

The result was that Dr. Fitch tasked the PCO student council with determining when Dr. Klein’s hair was getting too long. "

“They would call me in periodically and tell me I had to get a haircut,” said Dr. Klein. “I didn’t want to get kicked out of PCO. I wanted to graduate and I really wanted to be an optometrist, so I would go ahead and get a haircut.”

In addition to his studies, Dr. Klein’s time with PCO included immersing himself in the local folk music scene, something that would ultimately provide a unique experience during his final year at PCO.

He had scored a gig writing about the Philadelphia folk music scene for a few folk music magazines at the time, one start-up out of Toronto, and the other an established publication out of Boston.

One night at a Philadelphia club called the Second Fret, Dr. Klein whose media credential allowed him to get backstage, re-acquainted with a young folk singer he had met the year before named Joan Anderson and the two struck up a conversation.  Anderson had been doodling while she waited for her turn on stage and during the conversation, she shared with Dr. Klein doodling gave her headaches.  

“He said, ‘Do you wear glasses?' And, she replied, ‘No,  I have never even had an eye exam.’ “Well, it might have something to do with your eyes,’” recalled Dr. Klein.  

As luck would have it, he explained to the singer, that he was in optometry school and was at a point in his training where he could bring his own patients in for exams.  

“Would you like to come in for an eye exam?” Dr. Klein asked the singer.

Charles Klein readingThe following Monday, Anderson and her then-husband, Chuck, walked into the PCO clinic and Dr. Klein performed eye exams on both of them in the summer of 1966. 

“She was literally the first patient I examined who wasn’t given to me by the clinic,” he said. “The first patient who actually chose me to be her optometrist.”

When she arrived, she registered under her married name, which had become Joni Mitchell. A few years later, she would become one of the most influential singer-songwriters to emerge from the 1960s folk music scene. Now 80-years-old, she has been nominated for 10 Grammy Awards, was elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and has been called by Rolling Stone magazine “one of the greatest songwriters ever.”

After graduating from PCO in 1967, Dr. Klein stayed and worked in the Philadelphia area for another year, after which, he moved into a van and drove to California, where he spent the next two years trying to make it as a hippie folk singer playing the dulcimer (a fretted string instrument).

Once that ran its course, he started an optometry practice in 1970 in New York and went back to wearing a tie, jacket, and short hair.

“But once I was established as a fixture in the community, I realized that people were going to know me for who I was and I could be a little bit looser. For basically the last 35 years in practice, I let my hair grow,” said Dr. Klein who now sports a full head of grey hair and a footlong ponytail.

After enjoying a successful optometry career, Dr. Klein retired five years ago. He and his wife split their time between an apartment in Manhattan, a condo in northwest Connecticut, and a winter home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

“I enjoyed what I did. I had a lovely practice in a stable neighborhood with three-generation families that I cared for,” he said. “It was a wonderful career until it was time to pack it in, and now I’m having a wonderful retirement. I have been very fortunate indeed.”