Fifteen years ago, when Nani and John Chong had an opening for an optometrist at their Center City optical boutique, they wanted Dr. B.
Herbert Behrmann had a following. Patients raved about his calm instructions and corny jokes. After refracting thousands of glasses and contacts, Behrmann's old-school training and precision awed younger admirers.
Dr. B was 75.
He'd survived World War II and managed care, outlived two wives, and witnessed seismic changes in his profession, but could see no reason to stop working.
So he didn't, until last week, when the almost-90-year-old finally put down his ophthalmoscope.
"I love what I do, but I'm getting tired," is how Behrmann broke the news to his bosses. He commuted from Jenkintown to Market East by train, but lately, his walk to Omni-Vision at 11th and Chestnut Streets had slowed to a shuffle.
Dr. B's first appointment on his last day hung on his every word. Vivian Behrmann, 81, is the third Mrs. Dr. B. She needed new titanium spectacles, but so far, shows no sign of the glaucoma that struck her father.
After a full exam, Dr. B sent Mrs. Dr. B on her way. He had nine others in his book. Wouldn't be right to keep anyone waiting.
A young doc comes of age
Behrmann grew up at 22d and Ridge and was just 16 years old when he graduated from Central High School. At Pennsylvania College of Optometry, the youngest member of the Class of 1942 was lauded in the yearbook as "a great talker who always has the facts to back up his argument."
Six months after graduation, the 20-year-old OD received his draft notice. In England and Scotland, he treated fellow soldiers for combat eye injuries.
Back home in 1946, he opened a solo practice near Rittenhouse Square. Exams cost $10, glasses $20 or $25.
"There was no insurance. People paid in cash or promised to send a check," Behrmann recalls sheepishly. "They never did. I was gullible."
He worked for decades all by himself, keeping company with patients such as pianist Rudolf Serkin, radio host Frank Ford, and retired Surgeon General Luther Terry.
An exciting invention called a contact lens came on the market in the 1950s and gave the visually challenged an unobtrusive option. But it took a 1961 movie to turn eyewear into a fashion accessory.
"For the longest time, salesmen would show the same 20 frames," he explained. "Then Breakfast at Tiffany's came out with Audrey Hepburn in those great big sunglasses. That changed everything."
Paging Dr. B
In the 1970s, a new state law gave optometrists the right to diagnose medical conditions such as glaucoma.
"I started getting calls from ophthalmologists referring patients to me," Dr. B said, smiling. "Before, if you sent a patient to an ophthalmologist, you never got him back."
But when legislators went even further a few years ago and allowed optometrists to treat eye disease, Behrmann decided against subjecting himself to the new training he'd need to expand his practice.
"I was in my late 80s," he reasoned. "Who wants that at my age?"
In short order, Dr. B reduced his workload to four days a week, then to three. Each absence posed a challenge for the Chongs, his schedulers at Omni-Vision.
"We have patients who only want to see Dr. B," Nani Chong told me. "If they came in when he wasn't here, they'd leave."
Fans even stopped by for no medical reason Thursday, just to say goodbye to the man they trusted with their eyes.
After Mrs. Dr. B's exam, we talk about whether vision fails in tandem with the body. "Prescriptions rarely change after 20," he said, yet people who never squinted often need reading glasses in their 50s.
That fact Dr. B knows personally. The optometrist who worked for 70 years didn't wear glasses until the age when other people retire.