A Sit Down – with Dr. Leonard Emery

This post appears as part of a series called Sit Down – candid conversations with real people detailing their journeys and experiences with Vision Therapy.

A Sit Down – with Dr. Leonard Emery


Interviewed and Written By: Vicki Bedes 

On June 24th, I had the opportunity to be a “Guest Reporter” for the SIT DOWN SERIES.  It was my joy and privilege to interview Dr. Leonard Emery who, at the remarkable age of 99, is just as brilliant, funny, and gentlemanly as ever.  Dr. Emery believed that a therapist should be able to think on “her/his” feet and be able to unload and load an activity appropriately.  To that end, he taught weekly classes that explored the human organism from in utero to all stages of development as it relates to vision, always with the goal of educating his therapists.  I was one of those lucky therapists.  But, enough about me; let’s hear from Dr. E.  (Some of the following are para-phrased from the taped interview, and some are direct quotes.)

So, I asked the traditional first question of the SIT DOWN SERIES:   For the benefit of our readers, can you explain how you are involved in Developmental Optometry?

After sailing around the horn, Great-grandfather Emery landed in San Francisco, and Great-grandmother was none too pleased with the wild Gold Coast.  But, Great-grandpa liked California enough to sell the boat and settle in Northern California.  Emeryville has its roots in this family; and from Woodland to San Diego, the Emery family was here to stay.  Dr. Emery speaks of running free as a bare-foot young boy in the Imperial Valley in Southern California and then moving to Pasadena where his father worked on the railroad.

“Were you a good student?” I asked.

“No!”  We were speaking of 5th and 6th grade. “In that time period, I got my first glasses,” says Dr. Emery, “I went to a fellow named Dr. Napoleon Von Prague, of all things, and he put plus lenses on me. I was a hyperope, and I couldn’t read for any length of time. “

“The difference between 6th grade and 7th grade was night and day, “says Dr. Emery.  The world of reading opened up, and Dr. Emery began to excel in school.  He also was gifted with a high tenor singing voice and a talent for drawing.

“I was automobile crazy,” he says.


                        Body by Emery

Because of his love of drafting and design, architecture was definitely a career option for Dr. Emery; but he was interested in medical school.  Fortunately for Optometry, medical school was not in the cards for him, and while he was visiting the medical school, someone pointed out the window and said, “There’s an Optometry School right there.”  Dr. Emery remembered how finding the right optometrist had changed his educational course, and so he applied.  At that time, Optometry was emerging from its roots in the back of jewelry stores, and Dr. Emery was interested in making it a true profession.

“My interest in Behavioral Optometry came from part of what was taught in my course work with Dr. Leslie Skown.”   This was during the last half of his last semester.   “I’m probably one of the only students in my class to adopt it,” he said with a smile.

“I graduated from the Los Angeles College of Optometry in 1937 and worked with a well-known doctor at the time, in Los Angeles for five years.  Then, along came WWII.”

Dr. Emery joined the Navy and was attached to a Navy Ground School in Oklahoma where he was an instructor in Gunnery. Dr. Emery explains that he was a Teacher of Recognition.  Along with his instructor, Dr. Renshaw, he taught the quick recognition of aircraft and ship silhouettes with tachistoscopic flashes.

“The need for this training is obvious,” he says, “We’re trying to keep our pilots from shooting our own people.”

Dr. Emery also taught at a night vision school in Texas where he said they were in the only air-conditioned building because it had to be completely dark. He served for three years and attained the rank of full Lieutenant.

“After the war, I tried my hand at drafting and architecture for about a year.  I not only did home design, but I was instrumental in the drawings for the Los Angeles Coliseum.”    Now, this was said in a very humble way, and optometry almost lost this brilliant man once again.  But through a series of events, Dr. Emery returned to Pasadena and optometry where he opened up a general practice and couldn’t help talking to parents about this new thing he was learning, Developmental Optometry.


Dr. Emery and young patient

Dr. Emery soon began attending Dr. Skeffington’s seminars and while seated in the front row; nodding and responding, he caught the eye of Dr. George Crow.  Dr. Crow and Arla Johnson took Dr. Emery under their wing and began to sponsor his attendance at seminars and conferences.

Speaking about Dr. Skeffington,  Dr.  Emery said, “Some made fun of “Skeff” for the way he dressed.  He always wore spats.  But, I didn’t make fun.  I pushed his wheelchair at conferences.”  He added, “I heard him every chance I could get.”

“I just followed my nose,” says Dr. Emery of his early years in learning.  His nose led him to Dr. G.N. Getman’s seminars, and they became great friends.  “He was my brother,” said Dr. Emery,   “We really learned together.”

Back in Pasadena, Dr. Emery’s practice was definitely geared for helping children and getting the word out about VISION.   Here is a wonderful article about a young Leonard Emery and Homer Hendrickson conducting a vision survey in a mobile unit at Holy Angels School in Arcadia, CA in 1948.  Their message to the PTA: Vision is learned, just as walking is learned, and they explained vision in the classroom.

Dr. Hendrickson noted that this mobile unit was the first of its kind in the country.  “With controlled illumination, and office type instruments, an accurate determination can be made of a child’s need for further eye care.”


                                       Dr. Homer Hendrickson and Dr. Emery

Dr. Emery was also very active in his community and served as the president for the Pasadena Civitan Club. He was also a board member of the Pasadena Business District Association and the Junior Chamber of Commerce.   He was an associate professor at the Los Angeles College of Optometry, served on the Los Angeles College of Optometry Alumni Association, along with active membership in the California Optometric Association, the American Optometric Association, and the Optometric Extension Program Foundation.  And, of course, he was writing!


After a successful practice in Pasadena, and expecting to semi-retire and have time for writing, he moved to Laguna Hills and opened up another booming practice with Mrs. Arla Johnson as his head therapist.  When, Mrs. Johnson retired, he made Carol Burke his head therapist and that’s where I came in, about five years later. (Carol always referred to Arla as Mrs. Johnson.)

Dr. Emery retired in the mid-80’s and enjoyed golfing, with a hole -in-one on November 16, 1998, and was an avid boater for 30 years.  He has always been a devoted family man who enjoys his high-achieving children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.


Dr. Emery with beloved boat on right

When I spoke to Dr. Emery about the amazing motor training that he gave his therapists, he slightly shrugged his shoulders.  “I don’t know what I had learned from others and what I brought to it myself,” he said.

He had spoken of an associate in Pasadena, who taught him the Randolph Shuffle from Randolph Air Force Base.  It was an exercise for the already adept pilots to practice advanced interweaving of movement.  Dr. Emery said that he just gobbled it up for vision therapy!  He was thrilled to hear that the Randolph Shuffle and primitive reflexes and motor are still practiced in Developmental Optometry around the world.

I told him that I’ve heard some amazement that we were working on foot movements so early on.  I had listened to a tape from the early 80’s where Dr. Emery was speaking about his interest in foot movements.  He had been involved in research regarding twins, and he wanted to test dominance.  He knew some of these twins were test-savvy and wanted to distract them before they stepped forward.  He directed them to pivot their toes out and in and also heels out and in.  He began to observe hand involvement in the less coordinated subjects and realized there was a correlation with their development.  So, while we were doing orthoptics on some of those big black instruments like rotoscopes, arneson, tele-eye trainers, we were also doing rolling, patterning, creeping, marine crawl, trampoline, foot movements, etc…etc…and we were trained to really understand developmental sequencing.

Dr. Emery made it very clear in his training that our ultimate goal was SELF-DIRECTION.  In his nautical style, he said, “Self-direction is the ability to chart one’s own course.”  “The self-directed child is the educable child,” he always said.

When I asked Dr. Emery what words of advice he had for those who are working in Developmental Optometry, doctors and therapists, he really became reflective.  He said to me that it was wonderful to hear his words and training carried on.  That was a very special moment for me.

He thought again for a few moments, chuckled, and said, “Well, I just kept learning and adding to my knowledge along the way.”

Doesn’t that just say it all about our field?

Dr. Emery will be 100 on July 21st this year.  If you would like to send birthday wishes to this remarkable man who, up to 3 years ago, was running up his stairs two at a time, and loves toe-tapping classical music, please e-mail me at campbedes@sbcglobal.net for his address.

Thank you to Mrs. Dorothy Emery for gathering pictures and articles and also to Don, their friend, for his help with the timeline.


                         Dr. and Mrs. Emery

HAPPY 100th Dr. Emery! 🙂


Posted on July 2, 2014, in Sit Downs and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Wow! This was great. Dr. Emery was one of Bob’s teachers at SCCO – and I imagine that Vicki Bedes has some wonderful tales to share also!


  2. PS – as would Carol Burke. I remember meeting Arla Johnson at the first Vision Therapists Forum I attended, way back in 1974 or 75.


  3. Vicki,
    What a gem of an interview! I love all the sit downs, but it’s wonderful to hear from such a legend in our field. I did have to look up the meaning of “spats”!😊 Thank you!


  4. Peggy Paradise

    Leonard (as I knew him) was a family friend of my parents, and I grew up under his care for my eyes. Does anyone know if he is still alive?


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