The Anniston native, who had struggled for many years with Parkinson’s disease, died this morning. He had turned 89 on Saturday.
“Gentle, intelligent (and) knowing,” said retired Anniston physician and longtime friend Robert Lokey, characterizing Springer.
Lokey also recalled his friend’s “incredible wit.”
“He could take any situation and find the humor in it.”
Even after Springer’s illness made speech difficult, his mind was still forming brilliant thoughts, friends said.
“Regardless of how ill he was, he always kept his sense of humor,” said Sherry Blanton, a fellow member of Anniston’s Temple Beth-El, where Springer was a second-generation member himself.
His public legacy will always be the School of Optometry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as he and two men from that city did the early legwork to establish the school in 1967. It opened in 1969.
"We would not be in Alabama if it were not for Dr. Donald Springer," said John Amos, immediate past dean of the school. "He was a man with a love and a passion for his profession."
The dream was indeed Springer’s. It emerged from his duties as president of the American Academy of Optometry, a post to which he was first elected in 1962. At the time he was the youngest to have held the position.
“As a result of working with the academy,” Springer told The Star in a 1976 interview, “I saw the opportunity to establish a school of optometry somewhere in the Southeast. Well, a lot of other people thought that was a good idea.”
Among them were many state students who no longer had to travel outside of Alabama to become doctors of optometry. But the school became well regarded so quickly that students from around the nation took notice. One of these was Catherine Amos, a Kansas native who now has a private practice in Birmingham.
In 1974 Amos, wife of John Amos, was the first woman to graduate from the school; pursuant to obtaining a state license, she took a three-month externship with Springer that summer.
“The best part (of that period) is Dr. Springer set a great example. He kind of set the bar there for clinical experience,” she said.
She recalled the “great rapport” he established with all who came to see him for eye care.
“He had something to say to all his patients that morning. He knew something to say to every single patient and make them feel welcome to the practice.”
As a newcomer to the profession, Amos was “amazed.”
“How did this man know so much about his patients? He took the time,” she said.
The value of personal connection was manifest throughout Springer’s life.
Springer, Lokey said, “was very proud of the efforts his father (Nathaniel E. Springer) had to undergo to establish an optometry career in Anniston.”
The younger Springer went far afield for his education, earning his doctorate in optometry from Ohio State in 1946. That and Army experience gave him a greater sense of the world when he came home to practice with his father.
In later years, his quest for connectedness brought eminent colleagues in his field to his hometown door on Fairway Drive.
“One of the pleasant by-products of being with Donald,” said Lokey, was meeting all those individuals. They were “frequently people from other areas of this country and people from Germany and Wales and England — just the international contacts he made.”
Also considering himself privileged to have known Springer is Gary Murrell, a Birmingham-area native who earned his optometric degree in 1982 and practiced with Springer until the latter’s retirement in the early 1990s.
“I was a senior and he was good friends with a lot of the faculty at UAB,” Murrell said, explaining that his desire to establish a practice in a “rural but not too rural” area led to his introduction to Springer.
“We just kind of hit it off,” he said, thinking in terms of himself as a young Baptist and Springer as an older Jewish man.
“I think we complemented each other well,” Murrell, now 54, said with a chuckle.
The two men learned from each other. Obviously the younger learned from the older — and built some great professional contacts as a result.
“After I came to practice with him, I remember going to a meeting and I remember him saying, ‘Meet me down in the lounge.’ And there’s Dr. Springer, and the three friends (with him) were people I had read about and who had written two or three of my textbooks — they were the top doctors in the country.”
Yet, Murrell said, Springer was also keen to learn from him, the younger man having more recently been exposed to the newest tools and techniques in eye care. And this was the case even though Springer was already “very up to date” in his professional skills and knowledge.
Murrell said he remembered Springer paying a courtesy call to the office within the past five or six years. He had always liked to drop by just to see what was new in his old profession.
On this particular visit, Murrell said, after learning of some latest development in the field, Springer lamented: “'Damn, I was just born too early!'”
Dr. Springer is survived by his wife of 59 years, Theresa Dunning Goodwyn Springer. He is also survived by three children: David Edward Springer (Patricia Cole) of Washington, D.C., Donald Goodwyn Springer of Dallas, Texas, and Barbara Springer Loftin of Birmingham; four grandchildren; Agee Goodwyn Springer, of Scottsdale, Ariz., Chapman Lawrimore Cole Springer of Washington, James Edward Andrew Loftin of New York City and John Peterson Loftin of Birmingham; and a brother, Nathaniel Edward Springer, of New York City. In addition to his parents, Dr. Springer was preceded in death by a sister, Mary Ann Springer Herring, of Amarillo, Texas.
The funeral service will be held Thursday at 2 p.m. at Temple Beth-El in Anniston with burial to follow at Hillside Cemetary. Visitation will be held today from 5 p.m. to 7pm at K. L. Brown Funeral Memory Chapel.
Memorial gifts may be made to Temple Beth-El, PO box 1364, Anniston, AL 36202; or to the UAB School of Optometry fund which has been established in Dr. Springer’s memory. The address is School of Optometry, HPB 121,1530 3rd Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35294-0010