At 93 years young, optician Earl Fulling still reports to work each day at Northern Illinois Optical, the business he established in downtown Rockford in 1949. Today, with son Mike, he’s serving second-, third- and fourth-generation customers.
Earl Fulling is surrounded by a lifetime of memories inside his roomy office at Northern Illinois Optical, the downtown Rockford business he founded in 1949.
Fulling has a story for nearly every visible keepsake and photograph. There are snapshots of a life well lived: Fulling with Ruth, his wife of more than five decades; Fulling and his son, Mike, as members of the Shriners, the men’s fraternity that raises funds for hospitalized children.
There are memories of favorite golf outings, reminders of his time served in the military, and located behind his desk hangs an oversized painting of a cocker spaniel and Labrador retriever that he bought from a furniture store just because he liked it.
At 93 years young, Fulling remains active and extremely sharp. He jokes about nearly everything, from his age – “I’m still here,” he likes to say – to his looks. “I might just break your camera,” he teases a photographer taking his picture. He carries an impressive resume, yet remains extremely humble regarding any of his personal or professional accomplishments. As for running a successful eye care business for so many years, he says simply, “It’s been heavenly.”
While the reins of the business have been handed over to his son, Fulling still comes to work every day, greeting customers and employees with the same exuberance and wisdom as he did in 1949. “To this day, he’s still a wonderful optician,” says son Mike. “He’s a better optician than most people one-tenth his age. And he’s a great guy to be around.”
Off to War
Fulling attended Rockford Central High School until his junior year, when he moved to California, where he graduated from Fairfax High School in 1939. He then attended City College in Hollywood for a couple of semesters. It was out west where Fulling developed a love for flying. He hung out at a local airport where, for $20, pilots would take people up 2,000 feet in their Cessna planes. “If he was a good guy, he’d even let you take the stick,” Fulling says.
His zeal for flying would prove useful when he joined the Air Force in 1942. With the U.S. embroiled in World War II, the deadliest conflict in history, Fulling says he felt a sense of obligation to join the fight. “We all said the same thing,” he says. “We had to get in before it was over. Like any young guy, I thought nothing could happen to me. You had to have that attitude. If not, you don’t belong there.”
Based in San Antonio during training, Fulling says day-to-day life in the military was mundane. “The most fun we had was when we chased cows,” he says. “But the ranchers sure hated us.”
Earning the rank of major, Fulling was a B-24 bomber combat pilot, flying missions in New Guinea and the Philippines. Without hesitation, Fulling can state exactly how long he served in the Air Force, right down to the day. “Three years, 10 months, two weeks and two days,” he says of a period in his life that was mixed with immense pride and deep sorrow. “Of course, I was scared,” he says. “When we left each morning, you’d see nine planes take off, but only five or six return at night. A lot of our guys didn’t come home.”
Despite the heavy toll – more than 60 million casualties – Fulling remains firm on his decision to enter the military. “I wasn’t drafted. I could have waited a few years,” he says. “But it was something I wanted to do. It was something I had to do for my country.”
What was supposed to be a quick trip back home to Rockford in 1946 ultimately led Fulling to start his own business.
“I came back here to visit my mother, who was in the hospital, and I was only going to stay a few days,” he says. “But I didn’t have any money, so I went to work for Riggs Optical in the Talcott Building. I told them that my intentions were to go back to school.”
It never happened. Rather than spend four years in college, Fulling decided to stay at Riggs, where he gained valuable experience, learning to dispense and fit glasses. In his mind, however, he had other plans. “I wanted to open my own place,” Fulling says. “I was young and brazen, and at that age, no one can tell you that you’re not going to be successful. I figured this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”
And that’s what he did. On May 30, 1949, Fulling and seven business partners opened Northern Illinois Optical. The business has moved a few times over the years – all downtown locations. At one point, with money tight, the office was located in a building above a motorcycle shop. “We paid $50 a month in rent,” Fulling says, laughing. “We should have stayed there.” Eventually, the business bought and renovated a former radiator shop, which is still its home today on North Madison Street.
Fulling opened his business with finishing equipment and a couple of grinding machines. Grinding is the process of putting a specific prescription in the lens, which used to be done by hand, and only in optical laboratories. “There’s a certain joy in making a pair of glasses,” he says. “We knew how to do it. We did it well.”
Today, computer technology has made grinding lenses much easier. Machines that cut lenses are available with different styles and technology. “We did everything by hand back then,” he says. “We used typewriters because there was no such thing as computers. Soft contact lenses weren’t available for purchase until 1971. We’ve come a long way in this business.”
It wasn’t easy in the beginning. It took nearly three years before Northern Illinois Optical started to see a profit. Thankfully, Fulling says, his wife was gainfully employed as a nurse. “We couldn’t buy groceries if it weren’t for her,” he states.
Northern Illinois Optical had plenty of stiff competition – Bausch + Lomb, American Optical and House of Vision – all looking for the same business.
But that didn’t stop Fulling from knocking on doors. And plenty of them. “We called mainly on ophthalmologists and optometrists,” he says. “Anyone who needed glasses made, we called on. I got the prescriptions, we made the glasses, sent back the glasses and hoped to make a little money.”
Two factors helped to get the ambitious optician through the front door with most doctors. “They always asked if I was from Rockford and if I served in the military,” Fulling says. “I could say yes to both questions. I can’t tell you how that helped me develop connections. Anyone in the service was worth their salt, and it helped to be a hometown boy.”
Fulling embraced life on the road as a traveling salesman. For 20 years, he spent three or four days a week fulfilling orders across the state. Fulling knew his stuff – he could help anyone understand the process of making a base curve on a pair of sunglasses. He was a good talker and had a way with prospective clients.
“I love people,” he says. “On the road, I never met a stranger. I always believed that when you walk into someone’s office, you better be smiling, be honest and have something they need. What you do for one customer, you better do for another. And you better be a straight shooter if you want to get invited to come back.”
And he never turned down an invitation to a golf course, where many deals were struck. “I might have forgotten my samples, but never my clubs,” Fulling says. “In their office, they might not open up to you, but get them on the golf course, and they start talking about their wives and their kids.”
Like Father, Like Son
As much fun as Fulling had, he wasn’t sure if the business was right for his only child. He says he gave Mike the dirtiest jobs during summer breaks, in an attempt to discourage him from pursuing the business full time. “I wanted him to get into something better,” Fulling says. “I told him, ‘You can do better than sell eyeglasses.’ I didn’t think he would want to do this, but here he is.”
Undeterred, Mike graduated from University of Iowa, with a degree in economics. “He’s twice as educated as I’ll ever be,” says his father. “He could have done anything. I thought he might be an ophthalmologist.” Instead, Mike returned home and opened a business selling contact lenses. “A lot of doctors didn’t think there was a future in contact lenses,” Fulling says. “But we did.”
Early in the 1970s, Mike moved his practice into his dad’s building, and the two have been together ever since. “We’ve never had a serious disagreement in all the years we’ve been together,” his father says. “We might know the other one is wrong, but we don’t dwell on it.”
Mike adds: “I want to be here because he’s here. He had an idea to open this business and make it work. He offered the public a great pair of glasses that would help them see. The craftsmanship was tremendous, it was a good value, and it’s still that way today.”
Still Going Strong
Like most small businesses, Northern Illinois Optical has endured plenty of twists and turns due to the economy. But the Fullings have managed to survive through hard work, perseverance and loyal customers. Today, the business provides eyes exams and sells glasses and contact lenses.
“The worst thing is to have someone come in who can’t see,” Fulling says. “I’ve seen many of them cry when they finally can see. It’s an experience you can’t explain. It’s a great feeling knowing that I must have done something good. It’s not all about making money. It’s been a very rewarding career.”
“It starts with the young patients,” adds Mike. “Many kids come in here that can’t see; they’ve never had an eye exam or owned a pair of glasses. They’re unhappy about being here. They’re fidgety during the eye exam but eventually they calm down. And when they put the glasses on, they get a big smile on their face, because it’s the first time they’ve been able to see properly. That makes us feel good.”
Fulling still maintains a regular work schedule. He comes to the office every day, writing up orders and calling on customers to let them know that their contacts are ready for pickup. Before he releases a pair of glasses, however, Earl gives each pair a once over. “I can tell in a New York minute whether they’re right, wrong or in between,” he says.
Most days, Fulling spends time holding court in his office. He visits with manufacturing reps, employees, current and former patients and old friends who stop by to chat. Some days he might see 10 people, other days one. Anyone is welcome to pop in and head to the back room.
“He’s a local icon,” says Mike. “You see this office? It needs to be this large. It’s like a county store. Plenty of fat gets chewed in this room. He has second, third and fourth generation customers come visit. At 93, he doesn’t have many peers.”
And he has no plans on slowing down. “Retirement is a dirty word,” he says. “It’s nice to come here and act important. Besides, what would I do at home all day long? I wouldn’t last very long. I love this business.”
That’s plain to see.