Echo Park optometrist focused on the needy during the Great Depression

Photo by Colemama/Flickr

By Becky Koppenhaver

The Great Depression of the 1930’s and early 40’s made bad times even worse for poor and downtrodden citizens of Los Angeles. With as much of 25% of the population unemployed or on welfare, eyeglasses were a luxury many could not afford. During that time, an Echo Park resident helped hundreds of near and farsighted people throughout the city obtain eyeglasses they might otherwise not be able to afford.

Dr. Sanford S. Olsen, an optometrist, who once lived at 2158 Lemoyne Street, supplied hundreds of free eye exams and new glasses to residents of Los Angeles between the years of 1939- 1941 through an organization called “New Eyes for the Needy.”

Olsen kept complete records and documentation of his charitable venture in a large paper accordion file. The present owners of the Lemoyne house found the file decades later, dusty and forgotten in the basement. The file is a fascinating glimpse into the past, an elegant map of written correspondence, containing hundreds of yellowing, typed and handwritten letters, that bring to light the optometrist’s efforts during those lean years. Included in the collection are copies of letters Dr. Olson wrote to celebrities, businessmen and politicians, including Elenore Roosevelt, requesting support for “New Eyes for the Needy.”
Also included, are hundreds of letters from local residents requesting glasses, or wanting to donate money or old frames. It was a time when letter writing was the main form of communication, even for those who had telephones, it was a near art form, and interestingly, it seems apparent, that back then, no matter what a person’s social class, nearly everyone was capable of crafting elegant, articulate handwritten letters.

Originally, “New Eyes for the Needy” was the brainchild of Julia Terry of Short Hills, New Jersey. Terry was a former Red Cross volunteer who founded the organization in 1932. Optometrists across the country took up her cause and offered their services in their own communities on behalf of her organization.Included in the file are several old newspaper clippings of a then popular newspaper column from the Los Angeles Times. Olson enlisted the help of the well known Times reporter and columnist, Alma Whitaker – an Angeleno Heights resident – to spread the word about” New Eyes for the Needy’ and solicit donations. Whitaker used her weekly column, “Let’s Talk it Over,” to address many of the city’s social issues of the time, asking the public for help with charitable causes and often appealing to readers to lend a hand to each other in what was a great time of need for many. Whitaker spread the word that Dr. Olson was willing to help out the city’s poor ill-sighted” if they could demonstrate an honest need.” Readers could write to Whitaker requesting glasses, and she in turn would send the request to Olson, who was referred to as “Dr. S.O.”, or Sanford H.S., in her columns.

Olson ran most of the organization himself from his house on Lemoyne and an office at 200 Glendale Blvd. He collected used glasses from donors, and arranged appointments at the Los Angeles School of Optometry, which had agreed to give patients eye exams for 25 cents each. The operation was funded by having the gold from donated frames smelted down and in turn, used to finance new eyeglasses. (It was common for eyeglass frames to have gold in them back then.)  In the following two years, Whitaker continued to mention Dr. Olson and “New Eyes for the Needy,” in her column, continuing to ask for support and donations from her readers, as well as printing appreciative words and thank you letters from some of the hundreds of recipients that Olson helped.

In the correspondence between Whitaker and Olson, he makes several references to his house on Lemoyne, “way up on a hill and hard to get to.” There are no clues in the file as to why Dr. Olson discontinued his work with the organization. His letters and newspaper clippings don’t go beyond 1941, but one of Whitaker’s columns dated from late 1940, suggests that Dr. Olson may have taken up another cause– keeping watch from his house on the hill for what back then, was a feared and anticipated Japanese invasion of the west coast.

Whitaker writes in a later dated column, “…you might suppose that Sanford H.O., who devotes his every spare minute to “New Eyes for the Needy” after business hours, had enough to do, but he is also a senior air warden for his district…The great need is for desks, chairs, typewriters and “any such donations become the property of the police department, so no individual can get away with anything.” If you can spare any of these things, help him out.”

Today, New Eyes for the Needy continues to operate from its original headquarters in Short Hills, New Jersey. The organization now enlists the help of major celebrities such as Jake Gyllenhall to help spread the word and has expanded into an international operation, helping poor-sighted people in impoverished areas around the world