Clinic outgrows one-man’s vision from 66 years ago

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Dr. Robert "R.J." McWilliams founded his optometric practice, McWilliams Eye Care Clinic in 1950. After 25 years in the eye care industry, he passed away from a brain aneurysm in 1975.

Tom and Lynn McWilliams were optometrists with McWilliams Eye Care Clinic from the mid-1970s until his retirement in 2008 and hers in 2010. They sold the practice to Gundersen in 2002 and now live in Merrimac.

Gundersen-Prairie du Chien Eye Clinic, as it’s known today, employs 10 staff members (from left) Michelle Gregerson, optician, seven years; Kathy Kramer, ophthalmic tech, 22 years; Joyce Kregel, ophthalmic tech, 20 years; Dr. Brad Collins, optometrist, one year; Patricia Arnold, ophthalmic assistant, 30 years; Trudy Joy, patient liaison, 14 years; Nancy Posten, patient liaison, 27 years; Dr. Phil Holzer, optometrist, nine years; Todd McWilliams, optician, 40 years. Missing is Nicole Baumler, optician, one year. (Photo by Correne Martin)

This picture, from the Prairie du Chien Historical Society, depicts how the McWilliams/Gundersen eye clinic building originally appeared when owned by the Bohonek family. It once housed Bohonek’s Quality Market and Faultless Bakery and another eye clinic in the upstairs before Dr. Robert “R.J.” McWilliams saw patients in one room downstairs.

By Correne Martin

When Dr. Robert “R.J.” McWilliams established his optometric practice in downtown Prairie du Chien in 1950, he could have never envisioned where his one-man enterprise would stand 66 years later.

Just as the eye care industry has evolved in that time, so has the practice. In fact, the Gundersen-Prairie du Chien Eye Clinic—as it’s known today—is moving mid-March to a recently-constructed, state-of-the-art facility at 118 S. Marquette Rd. Gundersen Health System-Dental Specialties (orthodontics and oral surgery) will join the eye clinic in the new building, which is expected to open to patients Monday, March 21.

“Our last day [at the 213 E. Blackhawk Ave. location] will be Wednesday, March 16. We will be closed March 17-18 before we open at the new location,” stated Jodi Webb, clinical manager.

As a sentimental gesture to the man who started it all, the staff at Gundersen Eye Clinic has intentionally scheduled Todd McWilliams, one of R.J.’s sons and current optician at the clinic, as its very last patient at 4 p.m. on March 16.

“It’ll definitely be bittersweet. This has been my home since I was a kid,” Todd said.

When he was a young boy, Todd and his siblings spent their Saturday afternoons at McWilliams Eye Care Clinic helping their dad empty ash trays and pick up tiny screws from the floor.

“All I remember about my father is that he worked constantly,” Todd recalled.

R.J. rented the office from brothers Robert and Felix Bohonek, who ran a bakery next door. Ironically, there was another optometric practice in the upstairs of the same building before McWilliams moved in.

During his time as doctor, R.J. performed ocular exams, dispensed and repaired glasses and took care of his own paperwork until his wife, Lorraine, assisted him and, eventually, he hired an office clerk.

That was back in the era when there were three options for glasses: black, brown and clear frames—no different shapes or styles like there are now. It was also when patients paid $9 to $15 for a pair of glasses, unlike the $100 average they spend, on frames only, today.

Unfortunately, after 25 years in the practice, R.J. suffered a brain aneurysm and passed away in 1975. Upon his death, his son Tom, who had finished optometry school at the time, took over the practice as optometrist. His wife and fellow optometrist, Lynn, joined shortly after.

Todd had worked as an optician for two years for Benson Optical (which was ironically located across the street from Gundersen) in La Crosse. He returned to his brother’s practice in 1976, joining the staff, which also included receptionist Kay Lorenz.

In 1978, Tom purchased the building from the Bohoneks. He oversaw three remodeling projects at the clinic over the years.

In the 1990s, optometry began to change when therapeutic law allowed for optometrists to begin treating eye disease. “They didn’t use any medicine at all prior to that. It was all glasses,” said current optometrist, Dr. Phil Holzer.

Also, there were no plastic-based eyeglass lenses, only genuine glass, and there were no progressive lenses, according to Todd. “When [progressive] came on board, it was just a huge advancement,” he said.

In the early days of Dr. R.J.’s practice, contact lenses covered the whole eye and they were made from plexiglas. As contact technology advanced, smaller lenses came about, soft lenses were introduced and, presently, lenses can be disposed after one day’s use and bifocals can even be embedded into them.

Tom, Lynn and Todd saw many of those transformations during their careers. In 2002, Tom sold the practice to Gundersen Health System. In 2007, Dr. Holzer joined the business, at which time both Tom and Lynn dropped their hours to part-time. They later retired in 2008 and 2010, respectively.

Then, in September 2015, Gundersen announced its intention to build a brand new, $1.7 million, 7,760-square-foot eye and dental clinic southeast of the Blackhawk Avenue/Marquette Road roundabout in Prairie du Chien.

“Eye care has gotten so much more involved with health and disease and we’ve just outgrown this space,” Holzer explained.

“We will be able to provide our patients better privacy, technology and accessibility,” Todd added. “We’ll have more exam rooms, actual pre-test rooms and the waiting room will be a lot bigger.”

Holzer said the staff—of 10 employees including two doctors and three opticians—anticipates greater efficiency within their new workspace as well, as they won’t have to move patients from room to room for services.

“We have a machine called the OCT (ocular coherence tomography) that uses a laser to scan each layer of the eye for defects. We have equipment that can take pictures of the back of the eye and send it to La Crosse to be read,” Holzer continued. “But, in [the current space], we have these machines in the hallway leading to the back door. The visual field machine is in a closet area.”

Webb noted that because of the equipment’s close proximity, multiple patients cannot be seen at one time in certain parts of the current facility.

“We’ve really grown. We need that bigger office for not only the computers and technology, but also our patients,” she said. “We will still offer the same great service; we’re just upgrading.”

The McWilliams family hopes the current clinic won’t remain vacant for long after Gundersen relocates. The building, including the office and five upstairs apartments, which Tom still owns, is for sale.

“We hope when someone buys it, they can utilize this space well,” Todd said.

In the 40 years that Todd has seen patients come and go at the clinic his dad devoted so much time to, he has enjoyed carrying on the patient-focused care his dad once provided.

“I enjoy the people, and I’ve had the pleasure to work with great people too,” Todd reflected, adding that he intends to stay with Gundersen for the foreseeable future. “It’ll be nice for me to finish my career in a new place.

“It’s amazing this all started in one room next to a bakery. It’s been moving to see things go. But it’s progress.”

Progress that was certainly “more than meets the eye” in 1950.

To reach the Gundersen Eye Clinic, call 326-6453.

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