NILES - Forty-nine years ago, local optometrist Dr. Henry Baron sat in his quiet Sharon, Pa., office when the phone rang, changing his life and work forever.
On the other end of the line was the office of then-U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was concerned wearing glasses during televised speeches made the newly re-elected president look weak.
"It was an image thing," Baron's wife, Julia, said during an interview Friday at her Niles home.
Special to the Tribune Chronicle
Dr. Henry Baron poses with legendary talk show host Johnny Carson in this 1973 photo provided by his family.
Baron had already worked for years helping people see better, but now his work perfecting the soft contact lens drew the attention of the most powerful man in the country.
Jumping at the chance to fit a sitting president with new contact lenses, then-40-year-old Baron hopped a plane to LBJ's Texas ranch.
"President Johnson showed him all of the steers on the ranch and he was really down to earth," Julia Baron said.
On Oct. 18, 1964, President Johnson addressed the nation sporting the new bifocal contact lenses.
Johnson may have been the most powerful of Baron's patients, but he wasn't the only famous name requesting the local doctor's services others included Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra and Gene Autry.
Now, in the days following the 89-year-old doctor's death, family members want to be sure that the doctor's life and contributions are not forgotten. Baron died of a heart attack at his Niles home on Jan. 26.
"A lot of my neighbors never even knew any of this about him until they read his obituary in the paper," his wife said. "He was never boastful and he never bragged."
Baron's niece, Adrianna Lamonge Mayes, noted that while some of his work appears in medical journals today, most people outside of the optometry community are unaware of his accomplishments.
"He definitely deserves some recognition for sure," Mayes said.
A native of Sharon, Pa., Henry "Doc" Baron graduated from Youngstown State University and later Chicago College of Optometry before beginning his private practice in Sharon in the middle 1950s.
On weekends, Baron traveled north to work in the innovative Frontier Contact Lens lab with Dr. Allan A. Isen.
In the 1960s, the two men worked diligently to perfect soft contact lenses, which were often ineffective. During the early days of the lenses, they did not center in the eye well.
The two optometrists worked with 8,000 lens combinations to come up with a design that finally worked.
After fitting the president with the contacts, Baron received two U.S. patents for his work in 1967 and 1972.
He frequently traveled to Europe to show off the designs and teach fellow optometrists the proper techniques and procedures for effective contact lens placement.
In addition, travels to Carson's studio and Sinatra's compound in Palm Springs were also not out of the ordinary, as he became the choice optometrist of many stars.
"He was invited into the group," Julia Baron said. "He was like a celebrity because he was helping them look young."
A Niles native and McKinley High School graduate, Julia married the doctor in 1981.
Baron devoted his life to his children and stepchildren while maintaining a practice in the area.
"He was the best stepfather a child could have ever had," Julia said.
In the years that followed the marriage, Baron went to court claiming Bausch & Lomb inadvertently, but illegally, used his patented lens design to corner the market on soft contact lenses and make millions of dollars.
Despite Isen testifying on Baron's behalf, Bausch & Lomb would eventually win in court in the late 1980s.
The setback did nothing to dampen Baron's spirit, as he continued working as an optometrist until his retirement two years ago at the age of 87.
"He loved his profession," Julia said. "He loved his patients and he loved helping everybody. If anyone was in need, he helped them."
Although he worked with many famous people in his career, Baron lived out the last several decades in a quiet, unassuming home on Summerberry Lane in Niles.
He was a recognizable figure in the community, often seen at McKinley High School football games where he had fitted much of the team with contacts.
"He could always tell the minute a kid lost a contact on the field," Julia Baron said. "He'd go in at halftime and fix it for them."
While Baron never sought the limelight, he did appreciate positive recognition of his accomplishments.
The most meaningful incident came in a chance encounter with a young doctor in Tucson, Ariz., who reassured Baron that his life's work was not forgotten by those in the field.
When Baron's son, Eric Stambaugh, who lives in Tucson, decided it was time to get fitted for contacts, Baron found an optometrist in the area and made an appointment.
"He was a young optometrist and when he saw the name Henry Baron he asked my husband, 'Are you THE Henry Baron?'" Julia Baron recalled. "He said they'd studied all his work in school and what an honor it was to meet him. Later on, he told me that it was the greatest thing that happened to him in his career.
"Just to know that all his work was appreciated meant the world to him."