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John Baker, MSEd, OD didn’t set out to be an optometrist. Instead, he graduated with a degree in chemistry, but without much love for chemistry. At that time, his girlfriend (now wife) was studying to be an optometric technician at a junior college with ties to NECO. It turned out, he was more interested in what she was doing than the chemistry he’d learned. So, he went back to school and became an optometrist. 

Originally from Upstate New York, Dr. Baker had no plans of settling in Chicago. In fact, when he was invited for an interview at ICO, he said yes because he’d never been west of Buffalo before, and a free flight is a free flight.

Then he arrived in Chicago, and as he says, “I was just completely knocked out by Chicago.” Let’s set the scene: It’s a spring day in May, and as he drove down Lake Shore Drive on his way to ICO, the sun reflecting off the expansive lake, the largest Dr. Baker had ever seen, he was hooked. He arrived back in Boston, where his wife and infant son were waiting for him at the gate, and as soon as his wife saw him, she said, “Oh, you loved it. Didn’t you?”

It wasn’t only the city that got Dr. Baker excited. Optometry was going through drastic changes in the early 80s and 90s, and the foundations of our current model of practice were being set.

At ICO, Dr. Baker, directly out of residency, served as the chief of what was then known as “Module A”, an important role, especially for someone who had just finished his residency program. “At first, I couldn’t even believe it. I had to wait till Stephanie Messner, OD and Leonard Messner, OD returned from their own interviews (they interviewed for similar positions) to confirm that ICO was in fact serious,” says Dr. Baker. 

Dr. Baker took the job. He and his family agreed to stay two years. 35 years later, they’re still here. This winter quarter, he retired from ICO but still comes in on Tuesdays. Here are a few of his essentials.



My wife and I have always supported each other's careers. When we moved to Chicago, she gave up her position at the University of Pennsylvania Scheie Eye Institute to follow my dreams. It was tough going the first few months. We had a hard time getting used to the flatness, the brick homes were yellow instead of the typical red brick of the east. I had a new job with responsibilities, and she was unhappy in hers, but when you’re a team, you get through it.

Luckily for us, Chicago is a city that is filled with opportunities. Now, I find the flatness of Illinois very beautiful. A prairie full of wildflowers is just as captivating as the Mohawk Valley and Adirondack Mountains back home. And my wife found a career that she loved at Triton College in River Grove. She retired as the academic vice president five years ago. We found our unexpected place in Chicago.

From our first shift together at McDonald’s in 1976, we’ve had each other's backs and we’ve both flourished because of it.



In 1999, right around graduation, a group of graduates put together a team of six runners for a 10K race. There were four guys, but they needed a woman and someone over the age of 40. I turned out to be the guy over 40. I signed up on a lark. I did no serious training, but to my surprise, out of our group of six, I finished second.

This was in May, and I thought, if I did this well, maybe I could do a marathon, which had been a pipedream of mine. I wasn’t getting any younger. So, I said to myself, “This is the time.” That year, I qualified for the Chicago Marathon, and six more Chicago Marathons after that.

A word of advice though: I've read a lot about running and how to train, and I’ve pretty much ignored everything. Maybe don’t do that. I did a lot of things wrong, which is why I have knee problems now.



When I started running, my goal was to finish a marathon, but it turned out I was also reasonably fast (for my age that is!). The first marathon, I finished in 3 hours, 42 minutes. The next run, I finished at 3:35. That was 5 or 10 minutes away from the Boston Marathon qualifying time. After three years of trying, I finally qualified.

After competing in the Chicago Marathon in the fall 2002, I thought, “OK, well, now I'll just keep training cause I’m in pretty good shape.” I failed to take into account that the Boston Marathon is in April. Training for an April marathon during Chicago winters is not easy. In fact, it was awful, but I did it.

The big day came. The timing was perfect. ICO was closed for Spring Break. I was ready for a long weekend and a long run. I left work on Thursday, and as I was driving home, I came down with chills. Friday, I was sick. Saturday, we had an early flight to Boston, I was still sick. Sunday, I lay in the hotel bed while my wife took our son to her favorite haunts. Then Monday came, the day of the race. I was still sick.

At that time, for the Boston Marathon, you get up super early and they bus you 26 miles outside of Boston to where the race starts. I got up, and my wife’s only comment was, “How on earth are you going to run a marathon like this?” All I could think was, “Well, at least I have to try.” I ran for six miles, made it to the first aid station, and was so out of breath, that I decided there was no way for me to finish the marathon. It took seven more hours to get to the finish line because the bus with those who couldn’t finish (like me) followed after the slowest runners.

I’ve dropped out of two races in my life: an 8K Shamrock Shuffle, where I sustained an injury in the middle of the race and the Boston Marathon. I never did complete the Boston Marathon, but at least I can say I tried. And I was in the same starting corral as Will Ferrell, so there’s my six degrees as well.



There are many things I love about the Midwest. Midwest people are just different than East Coast people. People are friendlier here, and I continue to be just knocked out by the lakefront. There is one thing I will give New Yorkers. I will choose a New York style pizza over a deep-dish pizza any day.



I used to say my hobby outside of optometry was commuting to and from ICO. Now that those commutes have been cut to once a week, I’ve been experimenting with all kinds of things. In part to make sure I didn’t drive my wife crazy, and in part to prepare myself for retirement, I started taking classes at the College of DuPage.  I've taken cooking and mindfulness and right now I'm really involved with Tai Chi.

Because of my knees, I’ve had to let running go, but I’ve started playing pickleball. Pickleball is now my new running. Then there’s the garden. I’ve always loved working in the yard, although you wouldn't necessarily know that by the outcome. For now, I’ll blame that on the rabbits, who in general, when a battle against them is waged, win. 

We’re excited to travel more too. Both my wife and I had a lot of responsibilities as we moved up in our careers, and we’re excited to see more of the world. We actually just finished an 11-day trip down the Pacific Coast Highway.



I share a birthday with my four- (soon to be five-)year-old granddaughter. In her, I have found a new soulmate, and I couldn’t have asked for a better companion to share my birthday with.

We’ve been incredibly lucky to have her be a huge part of our lives. Every other weekend, Friday to Monday, she’s with us, and then my wife is with her every Wednesday overnight and drops her off at school on Thursday.

A young child brings so much energy into people’s lives, and she’s done that for us. She’s wicked smart, as they say. She taught herself to read at three. She’s very physically active. I’m thankful to be able to be so connected to her. She knows us, and we're very foundational in her life. The extra time I get to spend with her is without a doubt the best part about retirement.

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