Hundreds of people make the winding trek into the mountains 20 miles above Salem to New Castle, a village of 180 souls, in search of Richmond expatriate Langdon “Red” Henderlite. They are sent by physicians at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, the Wills Eye Clinic in Philadelphia, the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville or by more than 150 other ophthalmologists throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Henderlite is an ocularist, a maker of artificial eyes, and he learned his trade during a 27-year career with Galeski Optical Co.
At 71, Langdon Henderlite’s trademark red hair has turned white, but he’s still known to friend’s as “Red”. It’s a nickname that has followed him since his youth.
“Red hair,” he says. “Red hair and the son of a Presbyterian minister. You’ve heard about preachers’ sons? Wee-oh! I really thought I was something back then.” In addition to confidence, the red hair also was a sign of a temper and disposition to speak his mind, Henderlite admits.
Henderlite frequently breaks into a deep laugh, his conversation is peppered with both broad jokes and subtle, dry wit. He’s very much his own man, moving in time to a drummer a half-beat off from the one regulating the world around him. For example, he’s quick to point out that he wears a tie in a town where even the bank president goes to work in blue jeans. It’s his little act of rebellion. It all adds up to an easy, unassuming charm.
Son of a Missionary
Henderlite’s parents met in Richmond. The woman who would become his mother lived in Chamberlayne Avenue near Union Theological Seminary in the early 1920s when she met the man who would become his father. That young man was studying at the seminary and dreaming of becoming a missionary to Brazil. Marriage and a son came first.
Finally, in 1930, when Langdon Henderlite was 5 years old, his father received a posting to Recife, a coastal town in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. Shortly after the Henderlites arrived there, a revolution rocked the country, and a police barracks not far from their home was a target of the rebels.
“As a child of 5, I can remember bullets flying through the trees,” Henderlite says. “We literally hid under the beds. What else could we do?”
After the excitement and comforts of Recife, Henderlite’s father was posted to a small town about 100 miles into the interior of the country. There was no running water, electricity was an iffy proposition and the windows had no screens, forcing the family to sleep under mosquito netting. Although being the son of a Protestant missionary in an overwhelmingly Catholic country was not always comfortable. Henderlite says it was an enjoyable experience.
He recalls that, in later years, a scandal developed concerning the editor of the mission newspaper and his father asked him if he wanted to assume the position.
“I said sure, so long as I could say what I wanted to say,” Henderlite recalls. “He asked me what I meant and I told him I thought we should report on the scandal and not cover it up. [I told him] it would be better in the long run if everything came out. He didn’t think that was a good idea, and I guess I can see his point now, at my age.”
The ended his prospects for a career in journalism, but it didn’t end his habit of saying what he thinks. And although he has never given up his faith, it also marked the point where he decided the missionary business wasn’t for him.
“Most fathers want their sons to follow in their footsteps,” he notes. “I couldn’t. I considered myself too much of a maverick.”
A Career Opportunity
Henderlite attended Randolph-Macon College after wartime service in the Army. Then, in a job market flooded by ex-GIs, he worked as a wholesale hardware stock clerk earning $35 a week and driving a taxi cab on weekends.
“I had though of going into medicine in school, but I was in too big of a hurry to get on with life,” Henderlite says. “Then a door opened up and I went through it.” The door was a vague newspaper ad seeking a laboratory technician.
“I had had some chemistry in school and though I could be a lab technician,” he recalls. “It was a blind ad, so I didn’t know until later it was Galeski.”
Joseph Salo Galeski, a son of the company’s founder, interviewed him.
“He said they make ocular prostheses,” Henderlite tells. “I guess he saw a blank look on my face, because he reached into a desk drawer and brought out a box with a glass top and it was divided into little compartments. Each compartment held a bit of plastic and showed each step in the process in making a finished eye. “Right then I was fascinated.”
Galeski put him to work for $50 a week. After three weeks, he gave Henderlite a raise to $65 a week. In addition to paying him a princely wage, Galeski taught Henderlite the trade.
“He had the patience of Job,” Henderlite says. “He was the best man I ever worked for. I worked for him for 18 or 20 years, until he died. He taught me a great deal.”
Galeski sent him to seminars at the Medical College of Virginia, taught him how to prepare the artificial eyes and then teamed him with an experienced ocularist so he could learn the art of fitting artificial eyes to patients.
“One day Mr. Galeski came in and said, ‘Red, I want you to go down to Norfolk and fit some eyes,'” Henderlite recalls. “I’m glad he didn’t tell me the day before because I wouldn’t have slept a wink. I had the same feeling that day that I had the day I soloed in an airplane: I was scared to death.”
He was successful, though, and he was soon traveling around the state and beyond, fitting patients with artificial eyes. Those years with Galeski were good, but they ended when the company came under new management.
In 1980, Henderlite bought the practice of a retiring fitter and settled in Roanoke. “I knew him somewhat and he just called me up one day and asked if I wanted to buy his business,” Henderlite says. “I think the Lord has a way of doing things for people if they just look for it. If I hadn’t answered that ad I wouldn’t have gone to work for Galeski. If this fellow hadn’t called, I wouldn’t have moved to Roanoke, and then I wouldn’t have met Ressa.”
Ress is Henderlite’s second wife. She hangs on his words, though obviously she has heard his stories before. There is pride, perhaps even a sense of wonder, in the way she watches him. There is more, too. There is strength and patience. She doesn’t play the straight man to his antics; rather, she provides a measure of adult supervision.
Many of the patients Henderlite took on when he purchased the business lived in the Bristol area, so he worked there three days a month. Ressa worked at the motel where he stayed, and soon they were married.
Six years ago, Henderlite drove down a country road he had never traveled – taking the route simply because he had never traveled it – and found himself in New Castle. He was immediately captivated by the charm of the tiny town, and he wasted no time in moving there. New Castle is a small collection of houses and buildings, many of them Victorian in origin. The town is the seat of sparsely populated Craig County, nestled between the bustle of the Roanoke Valley and the mountainous solitude of southern West Virginia.
Henderlite built a log house on a 15-acre tract of woodland just outside the town, having done much of the finish work himself. he spends the long winter evening there working on model airplanes, crafting the delicate parts and gingerly assembling them.
“I’m too chicken to fly them,” he confides. “After spending all that time on them, I just won’t let go.”
Craftsman at Work
Henderlite’s small office is next to the ice cream parlor of the Breadbasket Restaurant, a notable local landmark. It is there that he painstakingly handcrafts artificial eyes for his patients.
By the time Henderlite begins his work, an ophthalmologist has already ministered to a patient’s physical needs, having replaced an eye with an ocular implant. It is Henderlite’s job to make a concave plastic disk that is crafted to match the real eye in appearance. He then pegs the disk to the unsightly implant, so the movement of the implant is transferred to the artificial eye.
“Motility is absolutely required to restore people to society again,” he says. “With these implants, the movement is perfect. You can’t detect any difference in movement [between the real and the artificial eye].”
The task sounds simple, but the process requires patience, skill and craftsmanship. Henderlite paints this iris on a curved plastic lens which has a pupil fused to the back. As many as 20 coats of paint may be needed to reproduce all the striations of color found in the patient’s real eye. He works at a small table in a tiny cubicle, with the patient sitting right behind him. He frequently turns to match his work with the real eye of the patient, returning to his table to adjust his work by subtly mixing the colors of the thin paint.
“I’ve never had a course in art,” he says. “I just learned by doing. There are times when I labor for hours over a color, trying to get it right, but it’s as though nothing works. Then – and this has happened more than once – it just comes to me something altogether different form how I thought it should be done. And it works.”
That he says is divine inspiration. Really divine inspiration.
Once the iris is painted, he takes an impression of the patient’s implant and eye socket, much as a dentist makes an impression of a patient’s teeth. From the impression he makes a mold in which he places the iris at the proper location. Then he pours white plastic into the mold, tinting the plastic to match the color of the white of the patient’s real eye.
When the artificial eye comes out of the mold, he buffs it smooth and then cements tiny red plastic threads to the surface to simulate the vein pattern of the eye. Finally, a thin layer of clear plastic is placed over the eye, dealing it and giving the apperance of the corneal dome of the eye.
It’s a laborious process, but one Henderlite has found rewarding. He considers himself one of the old guard of eye fitters, as ocularists refer to themselves. He taught his trade to his brother and he often assists a nephew who has a practice in Charlotte, NC. Other ocularists consult him when they have a tough case, seeking to tap his wealth of knowledge.
“I don’t know any more than other fitters,” he says. “I just take more time with it.”
Patients Come First
That is as it should be, he says, because the patient must always come first. Humor and charm are replaced by passion and caring when he speaks of his patients. Patients become friends, friends who return periodically through the years to have their artificial eyes cleaned and refitted.
“There’s always a challenge. None of the cases are all the same,” Henderlite says. “The fit is always different, the colors are always different. There is always something more to learn. I’m willing to try just about anything if it will help the patient.”
“This is a lifetime proposition. You can never know enough. There is always something new every day. I enjoy the work, but dealing with people gets to be so tiring,” he admits.
Fort-one years is a long time, and Henderlite has reduced his work week to three days. He still finds time to go to nursing homes to serve patients and he will meet with patients at any time if they can’t make his usual office hours.
His next step? Henderlitte vaguely mentions buying an RV and seeing the country, but he doesn’t seem entirely settled on that.
All lives are filled with choices, but Henderlite describes the pivotal points in his life as opportunities taken, not choices to be regretted. When the next opportunity crystallizes, one had the sense he’ll know it.