When Optometrists Attended Think Tanks
By Irving Bennett, O.D.
Henry W. Hofstetter was, indeed, a master educator who treated his experiences outside the institutions in which he taught or administered much like a teaching/learning experience. His term as 47th president of the American Optometric Association was punctuated with conferences designed to make participants think, discuss, debate and resolve. The Bradford Woods Conference of 1954 was not a major item on Hofstetter’s curriculum vitae but it deserved to be. That conference, the brainchild of Hofstetter and his colleague Robert W. Tubesing was the granddaddy of think tanks for optometrists. It combined academic optometrists and practicing optometrists, many of the latter being veterans of World War II. Together they questioned the scope of practice of the profession and its lack of progress to change that scope.
The Bradford Woods setting was a Manor (an old mansion) owned by Indiana University and used for retreats. Hofstetter described the meeting thusly: “The conference was designed to be completely informal, without organizational representation, and entirely at the personal expense of those participating. It was further planned that there should be no officers, by-laws, sponsorships, or organizational type activities beyond the election of a chairman to preside at the conference. No minutes were kept, no resolutions considered or adopted, and no publicity was given to the meeting. Topics to be discussed were left entirely to the discretion of those in attendance.” They thought the conversation would result in thought-provoking discussions. Indeed it did.
The Allenberry Conference and the Blue Sky Conference of the Michigan Optometric Association were somewhat different from Bradford Woods. At Allenberry, because the number of participants was greater, the attendees were split into three or four groups of 15 to 20, making sure that the participants of each group for each of the four “sessions” were different. At Blue Sky the meeting was an official one of the Michigan Optometric Association so the selection of attendees were not “by invitation only” as was the case for Allenberry and Bradford Woods meetings.
Here are some distinguishing characteristics from each of these three meetings as they appeared in reports published in the Journal of the American Optometric Association, The American Journal of Optometry and Archives of the American Academy of Optometry, and Michigan Optometrist.
Hofstetter writing in the Academy Journal noted, “The original 20 invited were selected for a variety of professional interests, their known or promising leadership in the profession, their recognized interest in fundamental professional problems, and their recognized ability to contribute constructively to optometric thinking. Some attempt was made to include men [sic] of all age levels, from various types of communities, and with differing educational backgrounds and points of view. By all means the selection was not intended to be exclusive; rather it was designed as an experiment in a type of conference which, if successful, might serve as a pattern for others who might wish to institute like meetings of similarly constituted groups.
“A year later the same participants were invited back and each was asked to nominate another person whom he felt could contribute to the discussions.”
All of the conferences were held in October, a particularly inviting time of year in the autumn-tinted rolling hills of southern Indiana. The Manor provided dormitory-type lodging, informal self-served home cooking, and the exclusive use of the facility with its ample parking. Each participant was assigned a job (server, cleaner-upper, etc.). There was a phenomenally-low cost of attendance.
Hofstetter noted that “the conferences have been most invigorating, inspirational, and educational. The freedom of expression, the informality, the lack of distractions (e.g. no golf) and the lack of organizational pressures have made them unique in character. Topics for discussion have followed, the most part, the general theme of ‘Optometry, its present and future role in society.’ That original pattern of operation has been followed faithfully and without even minor mo
One of the outgrowths of the Bradford Woods Conference was the number of times participants suggested that similar conferences be instituted by other optometric groups.
The Allenberry Conference
In 1967, Milton Eger, then editor of the Journal of the American Optometric Association (JAOA), and Irving Bennett, former JAOA editor, took up the suggestions made at Bradford Woods, and decided to run a similar conference in their home state of Pennsylvania. Each had attended several Bradford Woods meetings and was impressed by the candor of the conversation and the openness of expression.
One of the warnings from Dr. Hofstetter had been the “delicate aspect” of the first meeting “since it would appear to offend many who are not invited.” The problem was not so acute with the Allenberry Conference since the facility would easily accommodate 50 people if not more.
First Eger and Bennett sought a convenient site – somewhere central because Pennsylvania is a large state, somewhere easy to reach by plane or car, somewhere near one of the three larger cities, and somewhere meals and lodging would be provided for reasonable rates. It did not take long to find Allenberry, an Inn in Boiling Springs, Pa. – in the center part of the state and quite close to Harrisburg, the state’s capitol.
The original list of invitees was 50 optometrists who had over the years been active in organizational, educational, legislative, and/or academia in optometry. It was gratifying that 43 of the original list of invitees accepted the invitation to attend the two-day meeting on October 18 and 19, 1967.
There were many similarities between Bradford Woods and Allenberry—and many differences. Because the attendees at Allenberry were twice the number that went to Bradford Woods, the group was divided into four smaller sessions each lasting 2 ½ hours. Each group selected a moderator to keep the discussion on track and each group selected a recorder to take brief notes.
Like its predecessor, Allenberry did not take minutes or arrange to publish the results of the discussions. The recorder was there to report to the closi
ng session of each day what transpired in its group. Any conclusions that were drawn were done privately by participants to do with what he (or she) wished. For the first two Allenberry Conferences, at least, no female optometrists were invited or attended. Attendance records from the other Allenberry conferences do not appear to be available.
At Bradford Woods, participants helped serve the meals and clean up after the meals. Attendees made their own beds in the morning. At Allenberry, participants could pay for a private room or bunk with another attendee. Three meals a day were served in the Inn’s dining room. Although very comfortable, the furnishings and atmosphere for both venues were rustic and sufficient.
The leaders, Hofstetter and Tubesing, verbally suggested subjects for discussion at Bradford Woods. For Allenberry, Eger and Bennett prepared a sheet with ten to 20 suggested topics to discuss, each with a brief background. Attendees could pick a topic from the prepared list or suggest other topics.
Both meetings offered some free time to kibbutz, to play a late night game of bridge, shoot the breeze, or take a social drink. Bradford Woods did not have a bar or bartender in the Manor so if anyone wanted to imbibe he needed to bring his own refreshment. At Allenberry there was a bar and a bartender.
Membership in the AOA or in the Academy was not necessary to attend either Bradford Woods or Allenberry but only a few non-AOA members ever did attend. As an experiment at one Allenberry Conference, a group of ophthalmologists were invited to attend and a few did. At least it proved that we were all human but had different opinions.
Both Bradford Woods and Allenberry faded away like most meetings and conferences do. An effort to revive Allenberry after the turn of the century did not work. Most of the pr
oblems that faced the participants at Bradford Woods and Allenberry had been solved and the new problems did not appear as simple or as exciting.
The Blue Sky Conference
The first Blue Sky Conference of the Michigan Optometric Association (MOA) was conducted at the Waldenwoods Conference Center on Walden Lake near Howell, Mich. in September 1968. The meeting was designed to be a completely informal, off-the-record discussion of problems facing Michigan optometry and the MOA. It was attended by 41 ODs most of whom were officers and committee chairmen of the association.
Although it used the meeting formula well established by Bradford Woods and copied by Allenberry, it had one very fundamental difference – the meeting was an official one of the MOA and resulted in specific recommendations to be considered by the Association’s Board of Directors. One of the 11 original Blue Sky recommendations was that the conference be made annual and be made a part of the annual state convention.
The attendees at Blue Sky were split into three smaller working groups, with summary “general sessions” at the close of each of the two days. There was a working agenda of 22 broad categories and 52 sub-categories. Obviously, this meeting was much more structured than its predecessors.
One comment from a participant at the first Blue Sky Conference as recorded in the Michigan Optometrist (October 1968) summed up the general feelings of all three optometric think tanks: “This is without a doubt the most informative, interesting, and enjoyable meeting of the association I have ever attended. I just hope that it will be continued in future years and that you will invite me back next year.”
End of the Think Tanks
The records are not at all clear when Bradford Woods, Allenberry and Blue Sky had their last meetings. There may have been other think tanks that were never publicized or promoted. What is clear is that those attended were nearly unanimously thrilled with attending and participating in a freewheeling conference where participants were encouraged to express opinions that conflicted with the mainstream, that were visionary or “off-the-wall,” and could be openly debated with no repercussions.
HOFSTETTER, Henry W. and TUBESING, R.W., “The Bradford Woods Optometry Conference,” Am. J. Optom.& Arch. Am. Acad. Optom., 34:12, 683-685
BENNETT, Irving, “The Bradford Woods Conference,” Journal of the American Optometric Association” Volume 37, January 1966, Pages 53-55
EGER, Milton J, “The Allenberry Conference – Common Ground for the Future?” Journal of the American Optometric Association, Volume 40, November 1969, Pages 1082-1083
“The First Annual Blue Sky Conference,” The Michigan Optometrist” Volume 47, November 1968, Pages 6-8