Adkins tapped for Lifetime Achievement Award

By DEMETRIUS THOMPSON,

From the early 1950s, all the way to the late 2000s, Newton County residents with vision problems turned to longtime optometrist Dr. Lois Bernell Adkins who helped them to see the world better.

Adkins operated his eye clinic in Union for more than 45 years, serving thousands of patients from as far away as Meridian and Jackson, and also served as a Union alderman for 52 years.

For his many decades of service to the Union community, Adkins, 90, will be honored with the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Union Chamber of Commerce at its March 23 membership banquet. His first cousin, Charles Ralph Gardner, will also be honored that night as the 2018 Citizen of the Year. Adkins and Gardner's mothers were sisters and Gardner's wife, Mildred, was one of Adkins' high school teachers.

Born May 21, 1927, like many Mississippians in the early 20th Century, Adkins grew up on a family farm in Neshoba County. Adkins said that while plowing fields behind mules and cutting wood on the farm, he first learned his strong work ethic.

Adkins excelled in the classroom and on the basketball court in high school and graduated early before he turned 16. The U.S. was in the midst of World War II when he was entering college at ECCC.

"I knew I'd be drafted when I was 18, but I could get in a year at East Central, so I went to East Central and also played basketball there and then I joined the Navy," Adkins said.

After enlisting, Adkins got his first taste of the medical field when he was tasked with helping injured soldiers stateside at military hospitals in San Diego, Key West, Fla., and Miami, Fla. There he decided to study optometry, and after being honorably discharged from the Navy, Adkins returned to ECCC to earn his associates degree.

He then headed north to earn his Bachelor of Visual Science from the Northern Illinois University School of Optometry in Chicago. After returning to Union, Adkins married his wife of 67 years, Dixie, in 1951 and bought Dr. F.C. Bradley's eye care practice.

Adkins said he embraced filling the big shoes left by Bradley.

"He was one of the first optometrists here, and he was the third licensed optometrist in the state," Adkins said about Bradley who was also an inventor. "He discovered a radio turner and got a patent on it, and he manufactured nose guards for glasses."

Adkins' first office was located on the east side of the Newton County Appeal office in Union. 

"When I first started out I didn't make appointments, so people would get there early. They would be lined up when I got there, and I would register them when they came up," he said." Some of them would have to come back after dinner. The earliest I every started was 5 a.m. in the morning, and I would just work the whole day."

As his practice grew, Adkins eventually started making appointments and kept the Union area up to date on all the innovations in eye care, including the introduction of corneal contact lenses in the early 1960s and silicone hydrogel contact lenses in the early 2000s.

Adkins would also make house calls, especially for patients who were having trouble removing their contact lenses. Because the early corneal contacts were hard, they would sometimes get stuck in eyelids and Adkins would help his patients get properly adjusted to the contacts, which he said would usually take about three weeks.

Adkins' political career started early when, just six years after starting his practice, he was recruited to join the local government.

"In 1957, an election came up, and the mayor and some of the fellows had a meeting at Alexander's Pharmacy and they came down and wanted me to run for alderman," Adkins said.  "So I did, and I ran successfully of 13 terms and 52 years."

During Adkins' more than five-decade tenure as alderman, the board oversaw the construction of a new sewage lagoon, the eastern annexation of the city, the installation of two new water towers, construction of the new fire station on Bank Street, many repaved streets, the construction of the city golf course and the sale of Laird's Hospital to Rush Health Systems. Adkins said that one of the low points was a short-lived experiment with parking meters on Main Street, but that he is proud of the work the board did, including appointing dozens of school board members.

"We've always tried to appoint good school board members and we've had good schools here," he said.

Adkins said he always tried to build a solid relationship with his patients.

"You know they say don't talk politics and don't talk religion, but I talked all of that with them, and nobody ever got mad at me," he said.

Adkins became one of the most respected optometrists in the state, serving as the president and secretary of the Mississippi Optometric Association, and was named as the Optometrist of the State in 1986. He was also a member of the Southern Council of Optometrists, now SECO International, which is made up of 12 southeastern states, and served as the group's president in 1972.

SECO provides education and support to eye care physicians all throughout Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia and provided the seed money to start the University of Alabama-Birmingham School of Optometry.

Along the way, he and Dixie had four children, Bob, Nell, Anne and Bill, who followed him into the medical field as a dentist in Meridian.

In 1995, Adkins was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had to undergo 37 radiation treatments. Due to the complications from the treatments, he had to step down from the board of aldermen and as a full-time optometrist.

Adkins' cancer went into remission and he did occasional work at the clinic until finally giving up his license in 2009 but said he still misses it.

"I liked to work, and I had fun working. I like to be productive, and I always had fun doing it," he said.

Even after retiring Adkins took over his late father's beef cattle farm and worked it until 2015.

In addition to his work as an optometrist and alderman, he has been member of the Lions Club since 1951, a member of the American Legion, 32nd degree Freemason and a member of The Shriners.

He and Dixie also have a scholarship at ECCC and contribute to Union High School sports and activities.

Since retiring, they have had more time to spend with their 11 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

"We usually try to get together, all of us, on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We try to be a close family," he said.

Adkins said he was humbled when he found out about that he was being honored by the Chamber.

"I appreciate it. It made me feel good, but I hope I've merited it," Adkins said. "I've just always tried to be a humble servant."

The banquet will start at 7 p.m. at the First Baptist Church family life center. The keynote speaker will be Union native, U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly, and the entertainment will be provided by The Josh Dickerson Band.