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Patterson, a staple on Harvard’s Ayer Street, says goodbye

Long-time Harvard optometrist Norbert Patterson, 80, poses for a portrait at his former office. Patterson retired last November after working for 55 years in the same Harvard storefront.
Long-time Harvard optometrist Norbert Patterson, 80, poses for a portrait at his former office. Patterson retired last November after working for 55 years in the same Harvard storefront.

HARVARD – Soft contacts hadn’t been invented when Norbert Patterson first saw his piece of Ayer Street come to life. Neither had laser eye surgery. Neither, for that matter, had personal computers or mobile phones.

A lot has changed since the Chicago-raised Harvard man settled at his optometry business in November 1958. It wasn’t until late last year, 55 years to the month since the shop opened, that Patterson decided to close for good.

“We had original patients, and we had their children,” Patterson, 80, said laughing. “And we had their children.”

Some families came back through five generations. Patterson charged $5 for an exam in the early days. When he closed, it was $65.

But the price was not the only thing to transform. The industry changed immensely through the years as people developed more ways to treat poor vision.

Patterson enjoyed keeping up with the latest techniques through the years. Recently, he’d been prescribing some patients “corneal refractive therapy” lenses, contact lenses worn overnight to temporarily flatten the eye, correcting eyesight during the day when the lenses are out.

It’s not meant for everyone, but it’s another tool Patterson used to address the needs of his patients in a creative way he said wouldn’t have been an option had he worked for a commercial optometrist.

Patients “always say you can’t do anything for them, they’re stuck with glasses,” Patterson said. “That’s really not true.”

It could be considered odd that a man raised in south Chicago ended up in rural Harvard, but Patterson was influenced by a sister in the area. He used to make the trip to Harvard to help out on the farm, and though his wife, Lucille, was at first uncomfortable with a move to the country, both warmed quickly to the lifestyle.

They opened the optometry business at 75 N. Ayer St. after settling in town. Lucille, who’d worked at a bank in Chicago, became her husband’s receptionist.

The two worked together until Lucille developed Parkinson’s disease, which she battled for about 15 years. She died five years ago.

The office remained a two-person operation in her absence, with Patterson handling all the optometry duties – pre-exam, exam, fitting and measuring.

“That’s what a lot of people liked was that it was followed through, it wasn’t shipped over to someone else,” he said. “That’s how we ran it.”

Some of Patterson’s success might be attributed to efforts outside the office. His volunteerism helped his community get to know him. For 50 years, he never missed a single Rotary meeting – blowing away the perfect attendance mark of 30-plus years he’d watched his sister’s father-in-law rack up. He also helped out with Harvard Milk Days and with the Harvard Chamber of Commerce.

Pat Jones, a Harvard resident in the middle of four generations of Patterson patients, recognized those efforts.

“He was very dedicated to the city of Harvard and the citizens of the community,” she said.

That wasn’t by accident. Patterson offers his experience as a piece of advice to younger generations who might be just starting their careers in new towns, as he was all those years ago.

“You’ve got to accept the town and work for your town,” he said. “And they’ll, in turn, be working for you.”

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