In January 1997, I met one of the greatest opticians I will ever know. A man who challenged me, inspired me, and set me on the career path I am on today. Now, as United Optical celebrates its 50th anniversary, I am taking some time to reflect on the life of the man whose blood, sweat, and—I will wager—some tears, made United Optical the amazing business it is today. This anniversary is a bittersweet celebration, since this year we also lost this very beloved man: Douglas Stephen.

Doug began work in the optical business at the age of 16 where he thrived for the next 60 years. After working for Prescription Optical for ten years, he decided to open his own business. Finding the perfect location on Hastings Street, United Optical opened on December 15, 1965. Doug loved being an optician. He loved people and provided quality service for generations of families at his store in the Burnaby Heights.

Doug’s life was full! The business began to thrive and he was able to get away and travel with his wife, Bunny. They would go on a trip in the Spring. Then, after a short stint at home, they would enjoy the summer on their boat, Kerkyra. Boating was a source of joy and Doug was never so happy as when they were leaving to go on the boat. In the Fall, they would often find themselves on another adventure exploring a different part of the world. They traveled to Australia, France, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. They cruised on four different trips where they enjoyed seeing South America, the Orient, and the Baltic Sea. Christmas was always spent in Maui.

During the in-between times, the home Doug and Bunny had built together was appreciated and enjoyed. Doug loved his garden and he became well known for growing fabulous garlic and making homemade-homegrown basil pesto. Doug could sit for hours on the back deck just drinking coffee, listening to his radio and watching the birds and nature. He was always aware of the sky and observed the winds and light with a sailor’s eye.

He was probably the most optimistic person ever. For Doug, the sun was always about to shine, the rain was about to stop, and something good was about to happen. He was generous and charming and determined. When he made up his mind to do something, it happened. He was always happy and lived in the moment. Doug aged with grace and enjoyed very good health until his heart attack in the Spring of 2013. After that he had two years of ups and downs health wise, until he peacefully passed away on May 6, 2015.

I gather from the stories I have heard that the early years of business were tough. Hearing Doug tell of reusing scotch tape when possible and saving the calculator paper to use the backside told the hardships of starting a business from scratch. Even in good times old habits die hard and Ray and I would find pieces of tape saved on the dispenser ready to be reused to measure a height on a pair of glasses. From time to time, Ray and I will find ourselves sticking a lightly used piece of tape on the original metal dispenser for future use, Doug had taught us well.

Saving a penny isn’t the only thing we learned. Doug taught us how to be the best optical craftspeople. His knowledge of traditional optical techniques, his creativity, and his ingenuity made him a success. He fostered those things in us as he taught, encouraged, and inspired us. He never turned off the optician inside. Many times he would solve problems in his sleep. Yesterday’s dilemma had a glorious solution today. He taught us that sleeping on a problem would almost always result in a solution. A little rumination goes a long way to solving a problem.

One of the most significant problems that Doug solved was one a local ophthalmologist had brought to his attention: the debilitating condition of severe, chronic dry eyes. Doug was challenged to find a way to make a pair of glasses that seal off the eyes from the elements and lock in moisture preventing evaporation of the little bit of tear these patients had. Eventually, Doug came up with an idea, sourced the plastic, developed a plan, tested the adhesives, and invented our moisture chamber glasses. We have now made almost 600 pair, and because of Doug, improved the eye health and the quality of life of these patients. Ray and I are proud to still be making these glasses and carrying on this part of Doug’s legacy.

Doug was a great employer, heaven forbid we call him boss! So, to us, he was “The Big Guy”! He instructed with wisdom, corrected with gentleness, and he always had our backs. On top of all this, he taught me some very important lessons of business:

Firstly, always be at work before opening.

Secondly, laugh at work, laugh together, and enjoy what you are doing.

Thirdly, break bread together. Eating lunch together builds community.

Finally, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, running out of coffee at the office is a mortal sin!

It is United Optical’s 50th anniversary. It is Doug’s passion and hard work that brought it this far. We are honoured that he chose us to carry on his legacy. I hope we have learned well what he wanted us to learn. We loved this man, our mentor, and we miss him dearly. I hope for those who knew him reading this has made you smile and remember him fondly. For those who did not know him, I hope this gives you a glimpse into this amazing man’s life and when you visit the store you will better understand the heart and essence of United Optical.

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