I did not foresee that I would be President of our American Academy of Optometry when Irvin M. Borish, OD, DOS, FAAO, died. I thought he would live forever. I'd hoped I might be assigned to escort him at the American Academy of Optometry meeting in Seattle when we celebrated his 100th birthday in 2013. Sadly, that was not to be. Since his passing on March 3, I have spent hours thinking, reading, writing, and talking about him.
This account is not intended to extol Dr. Borish's incredible accomplishments or to summarize his curriculum vitae. I will not write extensively about his role in the very formation of our profession nor present the rationale for his selection as “Optometrist of the 20th Century.” Instead, I relate an intensely personal story.
If you were at the Academy banquet in Boston in 2012, you might have heard mention of a painting Irv might have been working on of me (“Karla on the Half-Shell”). In fact, he did speak of that mythical painting to me often over the last 3 years of his life. He wanted a photograph of me, but, given the realistic rendering of some of his paintings of women in the past, I decided that wasn't in either my or the public's best interest. What I did share with Irv was an 8 × 11 copy of a French advertising poster from 1895, for Cycles Gladiator bicycles, that depicts an outstretched Lady Godiva-esque redhead holding fast to a bicycle's handlebars.
During 2009, 2010, and 2011, Irv called me on my cell phone several times about his progress on the painting. He told me stories about losing the copy of the poster or that it had been stolen from his apartment and about difficulties he was having capturing the bicycle's wheels. We resent him several copies of the poster over a couple of years. I doubted whether he was actually painting anymore. The wonderful thing was that every time he needed a new copy of the poster, he and I had an opportunity to talk by telephone for an hour or two. (Not until I recently read Bill Baldwin's biography, Borish, did I realize that Irv was fulfilling the role of confidant to the Academy president, a function Bill asserts Irv had filled since 1936!)
I was truly shocked at the news of Irv's death. Shortly thereafter, his long-time protégé, Sarita Soni, deeply honored me by asking me to speak on behalf of our Academy and the American Optometric Foundation at his memorial service in Boca Raton, Florida, on March 11. As I flew to Florida early that morning, I wondered whether I might find the stockpiled poster copies. I shared with a friend that I could only dream of seeing Irv's apartment and finding the actual painting after the service.
Here's what came to pass. After the moving service that captured both Irv's optometric accomplishments and his role in his retirement community in Boca Raton, his daughter invited the optometry folks assembled to Irv's apartment. There, next to his paints and a cup full of brushes, was an enlarged, 11 × 17 version of the bicycle poster. I held my breath looking for an Irv-painted version of the poster, but I didn't see any in-progress artwork. As I said good-bye to Sarita to make my evening flight, she asked, “Karla, did you find your painting? Dr. Borish would have wanted you to have it.” Irv's daughter overheard us and observed, “You know, he really couldn't see very well during the last year.”
I looked harder. First, I found cut-up versions of the poster, capturing the shape of the bicycle wheel and the curve of the rider's … calf. I thought, “Perhaps that's how Irv was attempting to create the lines on the painting without being able to visualize them.” Upon further searching of the area near the paints and brushes, I found a canvas, stiff with gesso, both sides covered with a painted image of the woman cyclist. It's dark, like the original poster's background. It unmistakably captures the woman's body, flowing hair, and the bicycle's outline. It means the world to me.
The painting will find its new home in my office at work. For me, it embodies the values Irv espoused: commitment, motivation, the will to overcome obstacles, stubbornness, utter determination, a desire to complete every endeavor he ever started, and the life force. I sat in a Florida airport and resolved to host a festschrift in honor of Irv at the Annual Meeting in Phoenix. Almost all of the Borish Ezell fellows and the Academy's Borish awardees will make scientific presentations there. I then made a $1000 donation to the American Optometric Foundation's Borish Ezell fund. I will make more such donations annually, always toward the purchase of this priceless painting, still owing the great and wonderful Irv Borish a bigger debt.
Karla Zadnik, OD, PhD, FAAO
President, American Academy of Optometry