An eye toward the future

He can remember sitting in the back room of his father’s office as a young boy, doing his homework and observing his dad’s work.

Now, after following in his father’s footsteps as an optometrist for 43 years, Dr. Ken VanArsdall is retiring from his practice at VanArsdall Family Optometry later this month.

“I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to become an optometrist like my dad, it was just natural,” VanArsdall said.

The elder Dr. VanArsdall, Paul, opened the family practice in 1946 in downtown Columbus after serving in the United States Air Force as an airborne photographer during World War II.

His practice, and his presence, became a staple in Columbus as his patients came to know him simply as “Dr. Paul.”

Beyond the walls of his office, Dr. Paul sought to care for the less fortunate in Columbus by offering free eye exams through the local Lions Club, which he was actively involved in.

Actions like that defined Dr. Paul’s legacy, his son said — caring for people not just as patients, but as friends.

“What I learned most from him was to treat people as more than patients,” Ken VanArsdall said. “Don’t just talk about eyeballs, talk about their families and show a genuine interest in their lives.”

Upon his own graduation from the Indiana University School of Optometry, Ken VanArsdall returned to Columbus to join the family practice.

However, his father’s reputation preceded him, which meant many patients would call and ask to see Dr. Paul — the “real doctor” — rather than the new Dr. Ken.

“It got me a little, but I was proud of the loyalty his patients had to him,” VanArsdall said.

Slowly but surely, the duo’s patients got to know the younger VanArsdall better and began to trust him with their eye care.

The father and son team worked side by side for 25 years, a time Ken VanArsdall said he will always remember fondly.

“They did good together,” said Glenda Henry, a former technician and office manager for the practice. “I never, ever saw them have a problem.”

The business was truly a family practice, Henry said, which meant everyone, including the staff, felt like they were honorary members of the VanArsdall clan.

So when Henry’s parents got sick, Dr. Ken offered her the same support a true family member would have and allowed her to take the time off she needed to oversee their care.

“He was absolutely wonderful,” Henry said. “I never had any problems having time to take care of my family.”

Patients also took note of the doctors’ caring attitudes, which helped the practice build its highly-regarded reputation throughout the Columbus community, Henry said.

“People would say, ‘I’ve never had my exam done that good,'” she said.

After Dr. Paul retired in 1998, Ken VanArsdall took over the family practice and ushered it into a new millennium replete with new technology that would forever change the way doctors do their jobs, he said.

“I never like it when I’m at the doctor’s office and he’s typing on a computer while I’m talking,” VanArsdall said. “I feel like he’s not really listening, but that’s what I have to do.”

New requirements from government agencies and health insurance companies require Dr. Ken to digitally record information about his patients while simultaneously trying to care for their needs, a balance that is difficult to maintain, he said.

Those new demands make it hard for VanArsdall to get to know his patients on a deeper level, he said. That’s part of the reason he feels like now is the right time for him to step away from his business.

“The relationships are interrupted with insurance and government requirements, but I want to talk to my patients,” he said.

Aside from the evolving technology, Dr. Ken said his retirement comes at a time when he is ready to see more of the world than just what’s inside his office.

The last 40 years of his life have been completely devoted to his practice, he said, which prevented him from traveling and spending time with his family as much as he would have liked.

But now, the 67-year-old doctor said he is ready to see more of the world — specifically, Montana, where his sister lives — while he is still able.

Although the decision to retire was not an easy one to make, breaking the news to his longtime patients proved to be much harder, VanArsdall said.

However, he is confident that he is leaving the practice in the hands of competent eye care professionals.

VanArsdall was approached by Ossip Optometry and Ophthalmology three years ago about selling his practice and becoming a contract optometrist, an offer he ultimately accepted.

Selling the practice allowed VanArsdall to segue smoothly into retirement when the time came and to ensure his practice would continue even after he was gone, he said.

Ossip Optometry owns 40 independent practices in Indiana and Illinois, with a strong presence across Indianapolis.

Additionally, VanArsdall hired an associate last year, Dr. Nick Aumage, who will stay with the practice after VanArsdall’s retirement.

Although he does not know yet if his name will stay with the business, Dr. Ken said he is confident the family-like atmosphere he and his father spent years cultivating will live on in the next phase of the practice’s life.

There may be some changes, but as long as the patients he has come to know and love still have a place to seek care, then Dr. Ken will be satisfied with the end of his family’s ownership of the business.

“I want the practice to continue to serve my patients for years to go,” VanArsdall said. “Things are working out the way I want them to.”

Timeline of VanArsdall Family Optometry

December 1940: Dr. Paul VanArsdall graduated from the Northern Illinois College of Optometry.

June 1941: Dr. Paul VanArsdall obtained a license to practice optometry, but was drafted into World War II before he could open his own practice.

1946: Dr. Paul VanArsdall returned from the war and opened his first practice in the former Charlotte Building in downtown Columbus.

Early 1950s: Rigid plastic contact lenses became available, and Dr. Paul VanArsdall was one of the first optometrists in the area to fit them.

1973: Dr. Ken VanArsdall graduated from the Indiana University School of Optometry and joined his father’s practice.

1981: Dr. Ken VanArsdall received the “Young Optometrist of the Year” award from the Indiana Optometric Association.

1984: Dr. Ken VanArsdall became president of the Indiana Optometric Association.

1998: Dr. Paul VanArsdall retired from VanArsdall Family Optometry.

2003: Dr. Ken VanArsdall received the “Meritorious Service” award for his service to optometry in Indiana.

2007: Dr. Paul VanArsdall died in the spring.

Dec. 22, 2015: Dr. Ken VanArsdall will retire.

Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.