In recognition of the year 2020 and the significance of 20/20 in the field of optometry, the UAB School of Optometry is recognizing alumni whose careers have impacted communities, set precedents, or moved the profession forward in some way. With this in mind, meet C. T. (Tommy) Crooks III, OD.

Crooks was elected president of the Southern Council of Optometrists (SECO) in 1997. By 2006 he became the first optometrist from the state of Alabama, and the first optometrist from the UABSO, to serve as president of the American Optometric Association (AOA).  

From a career standpoint, he ventured out on his own in 1989. In the early 1990s, he and a few local colleagues formed EyeCare Associates (ECA) on December 31, 1995. With that core group of six practices in the Birmingham market, ECA grew into the largest group practice in the state. Crooks served as president and CEO. On July 1, 2015, ECA was acquired by a private equity firm, becoming EyeCare Partners (ECP). Four and a half years later, another larger private equity firm purchased EyeCare Partners and Crooks retired.

What year did you graduate from UABSO? I graduated in 1979. Our class, the entering class of 75, was the first class to start our optometry education in the “new” building, the current Henry B. Peters building.

Describe your optometry career path and what you’re doing now? My undergraduate days were spent at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. My goal at the time was to go to medical school. The Optometry school was fairly new and few of us knew anything about the profession or the school. In those days, entry into medical school, especially UAB or South Alabama, was a daunting task. Just by coincidence, I had an appointment around this time with my personal optometrist, Dr. E. C. Overton.

Although I had no clue at the time, Dr. Overton asked me what my plans were from a career standpoint. As I finished my story regarding the failed applications to medical school, he highly encouraged me to apply at the UABSO. Little did I know at the time, but Dr. Overton was one of several local and state optometrists that worked tirelessly to get the UABSO off the ground. As history shows, it was not an easy task. In any case, I made the call and had an appointment set up to interview. A couple of days later, I received a call from Dr. Peters welcoming me to the UABSO. As the saying goes, it was the best outcome that could have possibly happened from my career standpoint.

As the 1979 graduation date approached, it seemed time to figure out what I was going to do “when I grew up!” Back then, there were still many locations in the state of Alabama that did not have an optometrist. Many of my classmates chose to open “cold turkey”. Others applied for residency positions, others went in the military, and some of us joined an existing practice. My wife (Kaye) and I had a one-year-old son (Jeffrey) and after 8 years of higher education, I needed a job! I chose the quickest way to a paycheck by joining an existing practice in Bessemer, AL. I became a partner and began my career as a clinical optometrist.

From the beginning, I had a keen interest in organized optometry and began almost immediately by assuming a leadership position in our local society. That quickly led to a board position in our state association which led to becoming president of the Alabama Optometric Association in 1990. That led to being elected to the board of our regional association, the Southern Council of Optometrists (SECO) and subsequently was elected president in 1997. From there, I was asked to run for the board of the American Optometric Association (AOA) and served as its president in 2006. I was honored to have been the first optometrist from the state of Alabama, and the first optometrist from the UABSO, to serve as president of our national organization. It was a busy time, but a rewarding time.

From a career standpoint, I ventured out on my own in 1989. In the early 1990s, a few of my local colleagues and I began a series of meetings to discuss the possibility of merging our practices. Thirty years ago, that was a novel idea and most thought we were a bit looney. After literally several years of weekly meetings, we all agreed that it was time to come together and form what became EyeCare Associates (ECA). With that core group of six practices in the Birmingham market, we were able to grow into the largest group practice in the state. As we grew, it became very obvious that the oversight and management of such a group were going to require full-time management. The initial group was formed on December 31, 1995. Over the next several years, I devoted more and more time to the management of ECA and less and less time as a clinician. Couple that with the time requirements and travel associated with being on the AOA board, and by the time I assumed the presidency of the AOA, I became the fulltime CEO of ECA. By all accounts, ECA became a very successful large group practice in the state of Alabama.

As time passed, it became obvious to us that we were going to have to change our business model if we intended to continue to thrive in our chosen field. The profession, and the practice of optometry, was changing in many ways. The profession was morphing before our eyes from an independent small business model (corner grocery store) to a much larger business entity requiring resources that were not commonly available to the smaller independent practices. Beginning around 2013, and certainly 2014, ECA became a valued target for private equity. Private equity had indeed discovered optometry and our profession was, and is, ripe for consolidation.

On July 1, 2015, ECA was acquired by a private equity firm based in San Francisco and the process began to build a much larger business by acquiring like-minded practices all over the country. EyeCare Partners (ECP) was born and grew up rather quickly. Four and a half years later, another larger private equity firm purchased EyeCare Partners for what seemed to be an insane amount of money! Who would have thought? Upon the closing of the deal, I retired. Many ask me how I handled the transition to being totally involved in everything optometry related to being involved in basically nothing today. Well, my standard answer is that I will let you know when I figure it out! When asked what I do all day, my pat answer is that it takes me darn near all day to do nothing and I used to be able to do nothing in half a day!

Who/What influenced the direction for your optometry career? There are just too many to try to name and I certainly do not want to leave out anyone. I consider my years in practice to have been the “golden” years of optometry. Yes, I realize, many of my colleagues, both past, present, and future, will probably say the same thing about their careers. Our profession has been blessed with tremendous leaders. That has been my experience at every level. Regardless of whether we are talking about the practice of optometry or the professional side of organized optometry, we have always been blessed with outstanding leaders.

In what ways has your career path been rewarding or why this path a good fit for you? I am also frequently asked whether my involvement was worthwhile and whether I would recommend it for others. The answer is absolutely. I would not trade anything for my time spent in organized optometry leadership. When you spend as much time together serving on boards and serving the profession with other like-minded colleagues, you become a family.  I also would not trade anything for my time and efforts attempting to build the best ECA business model possible. Prior to our first acquisition, I do not believe there was a closer group of optometrists in the country than the ECA doctors. Bonds were built and friendships forged that will live on forever.

What advice would you give someone interested in a similar path? I still believe it is important to be involved in anything and everything you do. During my time on the AOA board, we would often say that it is important to have a seat at the dinner table. Otherwise, you can find yourself, or your profession, on the menu! From a career standpoint, be the best you can be at what you do.

Optometry is a wonderful and noble profession. Future practitioners will continue to do well. Be flexible and willing to change. There was no way anyone could have predicted the changes that have occurred to our profession during the past 40+ years. There are likely to be just as many changes in the next 40 years as there has been in the last 40 years. Almost all of the changes will ultimately be for the better. That may not be totally obvious when those changes are occurring. Optometry has always had wonderful leaders to help guide us through the sea of change. A perfect example of what good leaders can do was the convergence of great leadership and a bit of political luck in the mid-1990s.

The profession of optometry had struggled mightily for years attempting to expand the rights of Alabama optometrist to use pharmaceutical agents to treat eye disease. I know it may seem like many years ago to some and many of you have never had to practice without the therapeutic drug law we currently have at our disposal. But, at the time, it was war. I have never seen any group of optometrists, anywhere in the country, come together with such a sense of purpose and unwillingness to be denied. Again, there are too many outstanding leaders to name. It was a defining moment in my career and a defining moment in many of my colleague’s careers. For those of you who have years, and even decades, remaining in your careers, you are likely to have an equally important defining moment.

At this moment, you may not know what the issue will be or when that issue will appear. My advice is to identify the leaders. Be a leader if you can or get behind and support the leaders who emerge. As the saying goes, leaders will know the right way to go. Leaders will show the right way to go. And leaders will go the right way. The best is yet to come.