Downtown optometrist Robert Sams retires after 50 years

Published 2:30 pm Wednesday, April 8, 2015

After providing 50 years of friendly eye care to his clients, downtown Elizabethton optometrist Robert Sams closed up shop in his office for the last time Tuesday.

Sams’ road to becoming an optometrist was a long one, he said.

“The short version is the Lord told me to do it, if that makes sense,” Sams said.

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Sams grew up in Elizabethton on Gap Creek. His old home place is now the intersection of the old and new Gap Creek roads. After finishing high school, he enrolled in the pre-dental program at East Tennessee State University, but a study session in the library one day changed all that.

“I was in the library, and they had all these catalogs from schools from all over,” Sams said. “There was one for the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis. I looked at it and said that is where I am going to go.”

Sams got a chance to visit the school when the ETSU band took a trip to Memphis. Sam walked three miles to see the school.

He didn’t know it at the time, but his decision to switch from dentistry to optometry was confirmed as the right one when he had a procedure done while in the Army.

“I punctured a hole in my eardrum,” Sams said. “I went to the doctor and they gave me anesthetic and I had a reaction. I couldn’t have been a dentist anyway. What kind of dentist would I have made when I have reactions to anesthesia?”

He graduated from optometry school in 1962, then served three years in the Army until 1965.

Sams was given a commission as an optometrist, which allowed him to work in his field instead of being assigned to combat as a private.

“This was during the Vietnam era,” Sams said. “I didn’t see any combat, but I saw many who did.”

After leaving the Army, Sams returned home to Elizabethton, and he quickly found a home for his new practice. Sams met Robert Simerly, who was just starting excavation on a new building on Sycamore Street.

“I talked to him,” Sams said. “He lived next door to the building he was starting. He said I could rent it and build it how I liked. I was here every day making sure the rooms were made just how I wanted them.”

When the building was finished, Sams asked Simerly how much he in rent. His answer: $75 a month.

“I asked him if we wanted to sign a lease, and he said no,” Sams said. “He said ‘My word’s good. I hope your’s is, too.’ ”

The low rent allowed Sams to take the money he had saved while in the service and purchase the necessary equipment he needed for his optometry office.

Sams numbered his patients sequentially, beginning with No. 1. The last patient he took on before retirement was No. 113,785.

“My first patient was my mother,” Sams said, becoming emotional at the memory. “She helped get me started. My last patient will be my granddaughter.”

Sams feels he has been fortunate through the years to have a successful practice in downtown. He has taken care to share that success through the community in a way that most people are not aware of.

Through the years, he has mentored about 20 young children, offering them advise and financial help when needed. He pays for their needs through high school and on to college if they want to go, with the only stipulation that the listen to his advice when he offers it.

“I am really proud of them,” he said. “Many of them come from unbelievable situations. I tell them I will do what I can for them. I will be here to talk if they need it, have a meal, whatever they need.”

Sams will miss the chance to come to his office every day, but he said he feels the time is right to take his retirement.

“I am 75,” he said. “In 50 years, I have missed two days of work. I have been fortunate. Optometry has been a fantastic profession. Ninety-seven percent of what you do is something positive that helps the patient. I guess if you could define my work life, I cared. I cared for each and every one that walked in the door.”

After retirement, Sams will “rest his brain” and then looks forward to continuing his travels. Sams and his wife, Martha, have visited all 50 states and 40 countries.

“When I was 50, I hit my 50th state,” he said. “Oregon was my last one. Virginia was my favorite. I love history and geography, and that is the most interesting state for that.”

Around the world, he listed Venice, Italy and Australia as the top spots.

He plans to make it to Germany, one of the countries he has yet to visit, in his future travels.

Sams has one son and one daughter, Brian and Amy, and he has two grandchildren, Austin and Madelyn.