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Larry Dawson, caring South Side optometrist, dead at 66

Larry Dawson, beloved South Chicago optometrist.

Larry Dawson, a South Chicago optometrist. | Family photo

Larry Dawson was known for the thorough eye exams he did, but he gave extra care and compassion to senior citizens and patients with special needs.

“He took his time and got to know them,” said Irma Arce-Schilling, Tropical Optical’s general manager.

“The way he wanted to be treated, that’s how he treated them,” said Harriette Dawson, his wife of 41 years.

In a 34-year career with Tropical Optical at 9137 S. Commercial Ave. in South Chicago, the optometrist taught himself Spanish, becoming fluent enough to conduct a full exam en Espanol.

“This area used to be the steel mills,” Arce-Schilling said. “He learned to speak Spanish in order to service them.”

If a parent felt a child wasn’t thriving or doing well in school, he had pamphlets to share about developmental milestones.

Once when an adult client exhibited worrisome symptoms, Mr. Dawson urged him to seek medical attention, and that patient  discovered he had a previously undiagnosed brain tumor, his wife said. Another time, when a patient was stricken while at his office, Mr. Dawson performed CPR.

“They came back to thank him,” his wife said.

The 66-year-old eye doctor was still working until a week before he died Nov. 12 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after a short illness, according to his family.

He grew up in Chatham. His mother knew hard work from growing up on a farm in Stovall, Georgia. His father, from Demopolis, Alabama, was a plumber.

Young Larry showed initiative, his wife said: “He was a paperboy, and later, as a teen, he bought the distributing agency he worked for.”

He attended Cornell grade school and Hirsch Metro High School. Always good at math, he planned to be an accountant when he was a “BMOC,” Big Man on Campus, at the University of Wisconsin, his wife said.

They met while shooting photos for the college yearbook. “He was smart, and he had lots of interests,” she said. “He could talk politics. We played tennis together.”

She thought they were just friends until, she said, “He walked me home, and he asked ‘Can I kiss you?’ It was just the sweetest, softest kiss you could possibly ask for.”

One day, he accompanied her to an eye exam and was impressed by her optometrist, Herbert Almo. “He saw the office and saw what was going on, and he was intrigued,” his wife said. “He loved science.”

He enrolled at the Illinois College of Optometry. Only three out of more than 140 students in his graduating class were African-American, according to his friend and classmate Sharon Johnson-Brown, now of Plano Vision Center, 5401 S. Wentworth Ave. At times, the African-American students felt a subtle bias on the part of patients, faculty or other students, she said. but, “When others might have questioned his ability, he still remained confident, and he was determined.”

The Dawsons raised their family in South Shore. Their daughter, Megan Gray, became a dentist.

“He never took a sick day,” Gray said. “I gained so much professionalism from him and seeing how he treated his patients with so much compassion.”

And, when he met students interested in health professions, he encouraged them, even writing college recommendation letters, his daughter said.

One of his sons, Dr. Damien Dawson, a radiologist, said his father stoked the children’s curiosity with trips to see the mummies at the Field Museum and the exhibits on the human heart and the coal mine at the Museum of Science and Industry.

At 6-feet-2, Mr. Dawson “was always kind of a commanding presence,” his wife said. “He would go in to a place, and most times they would think he was a police officer. . . .Larry would come by, and folks would straighten up.”

A gifted cook and baker, he approached recipes like a scientist, tweaking ingredients to get just the right texture of crumb. “His German chocolate cake was to die for,” Harriette Dawson said.

“He could make the best chicken cacciatore. He made wonderful ratatouille, jambalaya,” she said, and “a standing rib roast with the little crowns on the feet and, in the middle, rice pilaf.”

Mr. Dawson liked golf and fishing. He enjoyed a trip to Italy where he visited museums, St. Peter’s Basilica and Michelangelo’s statue of David. He admired the work of social-realist painter Charles W. White.

And, he donated a gift that helped establish a science lab at Wells Prep grade school, said his sister-in-law, Sharon Gates, senior director of community engagement at Rush University Medical Center.

He is also survived by two brothers, Maurice and Sim, and two grandchildren. Services have been held.