A look at Waterloo’s first eye doctor  

Pictured is Orlou Reitz, O.D., (center) with parents Leora and Frederick Reitz after her graduation ceremony at Northern Illinois College of Optometry in 1947.

Orlou Reitz, O.D., is featured among the new exhibits this season at the Monroe County History Museum in Waterloo.

Reitz was the first optometrist to practice in Waterloo. Coincidentally, the museum display comes 75 years after her office opened on North Market Street in 1947. 

In 1965, she and her first husband, the late Glenn Raeber, built a home on East Mill Street. At that time, Orlou relocated her office to a wing of the residence until her retirement in 1987.

While the museum display features memorabilia from Reitz’s optometry career – such as her diploma and an old pair of glasses – the exhibit does not begin to scratch the surface of her fascinating life.

When asked if there are any particular patients she remembered, Reitz said there were just too many. The answer is not surprising given the fact she was the only optometrist serving Waterloo and surrounding areas for the first 20 years of her practice.

In fact, her 40-year career as an eye doctor may be the most mundane aspect of her story.

Orlou, who celebrates her 96th birthday in May, was born in Waterloo to Frederick and Leora Reitz, the third of 10 children.

Reitz graduated from Waterloo High School in 1944. She said her optometry degree program was accelerated as a result of government incentives to increase the number of licensed medical professionals during World War II.

When she graduated from optometry school in April 1947, however, she had to wait for her license to be issued. During the interim, she taught physical education at Ss. Peter & Paul High School in Waterloo for several months before being able to officially begin her practice.

Coincidentally, two of her brothers, Roger and Frederick W. Reitz, also choose optometry as a career. 

All three graduated from Northern Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago. Roger graduated in 1942, Orlou in 1947 and Frederick in 1955.

Her older brother’s decision to be an eye doctor was not the deciding factor in Orlou’s decision. 

“I wanted to be an optometrist for a long time before,” she said. “I just figured it would be a good job.”

Orlou was the only one to set up shop in Waterloo. Roger was an optometrist in St. Louis and Frederick established a practice in Breese.

Ironically, the three Reitz children who grew up to improve the eyesight of others were the only ones who did not require corrective lenses themselves. Their seven other siblings would all end up with glasses.

Orlou kept the tradition of double-digit children going. She and Glenn raised 11 together until Glenn’s passing in 1977.

One of their children, Ann Raeber-Brant, earned her Doctor of Optometry degree in 1994 and now practices in Phoenix, Ariz.

Ann was not the only one in the Raeber household to gain experience helping people see better. Orlou recalled several of her children would sometimes work together at the kitchen table to assemble eyeglass frames and lenses for her patients. 

Toward the end of her Waterloo practice, Orlou began to set her sights outside of Monroe County.

In 1985, shortly after she married second husband Bob Burkemper, Orlou was contacted by the Volunteer Optometrists in Service to Humanity and made two trips to Guatemala – at her own expense – to provide eye exams and fit locals with eyeglasses.

She described the trips, one week each in both 1985  and 1986, as all-day examinations during which she worked out of a briefcase serving long lines of people who had walked miles for an appointment. 

She said without a traditional office, she and about 10 other volunteer optometrists “tried to find the closest thing to a prescription” using different lenses they brought along. 

“I went just to help out,” Orlou said.

She and Burkemper wanted to continue giving back in 1987, this time by joining the Peace Corps. 

The couple signed up for a two-year mission, being assigned to Malawi, Africa, in late 1987. Shortly after landing, Orlou began experiencing a medical issue which was determined to be related to the long airplane flight.

The diagnosis led to the couple returning to the United States, but they did not stay in Waterloo too long. 

Orlou said her subsequent retirement was prompted when Burkemper, an avid cyclist, told her he “didn’t get married to ride a bike by himself,” she laughed as she recalled.  

The two then spent the next 20 years as campground hosts in national parks in several states, including Texas, Utah, Nevada and North Dakota. A majority of their time as hosts was spent in Glacier National Park, Montana.

During that time, the two rode over 30,000 miles on their 10-speed mountain bikes.

Orlou, a devout Catholic, said sometimes while camp hosting they would be required to travel 30 miles or more to attend a Mass at the nearest church – one of which was on a Native American reservation. 

Even approaching 96, Orlou continues to attend Mass regularly Ss. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Waterloo. She still resides in Waterloo at the house that was once also her office. 

“I’ve had a good life,” Orlou concluded, noting she has been to several different countries and visited every U.S. state.

Now, over three decades after her practice closed, Orlou is being honored with a spot in the local history museum, although the brief biography attached to the display only gives a brief glimpse of a life that could fill several galleries.

The Monroe County History Museum, located at 724 Elaine Drive in Waterloo, is open weekends from 1-4 p.m. from the beginning of April through December or year-round by appointment. 

To schedule a group tour, call 618-939-5008 or visit monroecountyhistorymuseum.org for information about upcoming weekend programs.

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