If he had his druthers, Dr. Merle Pickel would just “fade out of sight.”
But as the county’s longest-serving optometrist — and its only one for many years — he’s been way too visible for that to happen.
Pickel, 71, has sold his Brown County Eye Care practice to Dr. Ben Gootee, 28.
Starting this month, Pickel is easing out of full-time doctoring, seeing patients only on Mondays. As Gootee picks up the rest of the caseload and expands the clinic’s hours, Pickel plans to assist as needed for a couple months as a volunteer, showing him around the electronic records system and completing other work on “an open-ended basis.”
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“I feel I owe it to the community to allow him to get off to a good start, be able to concentrate on taking care of patients instead of sitting in front of computers,” Pickel said.
After 48 total years in practice — 39 in Nashville — and only one two-week vacation in his career, retiring is going to be a gradual process.
“It’s bittersweet,” Pickel said.
“I love what I do, but I realize that at any moment in my life I could be at the point where I can’t practice, and I don’t want to leave the practice in a situation where somebody might come in here who wasn’t the best person for the community.”
Over the years, he’d entertained interest from several other doctors. But most of them wanted to use his Salt Creek Plaza office as a satellite to a larger practice, or didn’t want to treat visual medical conditions, he said.
“When you’re dealing with glaucoma, one of those diseases that come later in life, it’s a burden if you’re 81 years old to have to travel to Bloomington or Columbus to receive treatment when we have the ability to provide that service to them,” Pickel said.
When Gootee, a fellow Indiana University School of Optometry graduate, came calling, Pickel knew it was time.
“He was just what I was looking for,” Pickel said, calling Gootee “very ambitious and very intelligent” and “a genuinely nice person.”
Gootee, who had been working in Tennessee until last month, learned through one of his IU professors that Pickel was looking for a buyer. He did a phone interview with Pickel on a Friday and stopped by that Sunday on his way to see family.
“Honestly, I think he’s built an incredible practice,” Gootee said in December, on one of several visits he made to the office this winter while he and his wife, Kelsey, made their move back to Indiana.
“To do the things that he’s always done and kind of continue his legacy is going to be important,” Gootee said. “It would be unfortunate to see a practice like this just sort of close its doors. I’m kind of excited to carry on the way he’s done things, both inside the office and outside, in the community and things like that.”
Gootee has fond memories of hunting and camping on family land in Brown County.
In the midst of this purchase, he and Kelsey became parents for the first time in January to a little boy they named Lucas.
The couple was drawn to this area because it was closer for grandparents to visit than where they had been living in Nashville, Tennessee. That’s where they had moved after Gootee graduated from optometry school in May 2016, but they discovered it wasn’t really that different than Bloomington, he said.
“I think it was still good to kind of know that, rather than always wonder what else is out there, to realize that you are where you want to be,” he said.
His goal in becoming a doctor was the same as Pickel’s: He wanted to help people. In his previous practice in Tennessee, he gained experience working with diseases of the eye. He also has an interest in working with children, and with bifocal contacts and specialty lenses.
Growing up on a farm, Pickel had thought about becoming a veterinarian but decided that optometry, more of “a clean health profession,” was his calling.
He feels honored to have been trusted to treat generations of Brown County families. “It’s gratifying that people would come to the same doctor for so many years. But then, that’s one of the rewards of being in a small town,” Pickel said.
Pickel’s wife, Sandi Pickel, said this has become one of the best places she’s worked, and not just because it’s with her husband. In fact, they barely see each other, because each is doing a different job, with Sandi, an optician/technician, handling pre-tests before Dr. Pickel enters the room.
Her father also was an optometrist, and she worked in his office growing up in Lowell. “It reminded me of my roots,” she said about working in Brown County. “Everybody treats each other like family.”
Part of that commitment is making yourself available whenever you’re needed, Dr. Pickel said, talking about the late-night and weekend calls that sent him driving back to the office when he’d just left.
“You always know that in the spring, the mushroom hunters are going to be out getting slapped in the face with tree limbs, and in the fall, people cutting wood, things like that. They’re kind of predictable, the things that you’ll see, just for the season.”
In 2006, Pickel lost the lower part of his leg to a boating accident on Monroe Reservoir. He came back in a wheelchair, then on crutches, only a month after his amputation because his patients were asking about him.
He said he felt very fortunate to keep working after the accident, though it has affected his stamina.
There are a lot of late nights, a lot of Saturdays and Sundays, working on paperwork even after the patients have cleared out, mostly because of government regulations, but partly because he likes to do most things — even paying bills — himself.
For many years, Pickel was the only optometrist in Brown County. Within the past nine years, two more have opened practices in the Hawthorne Drive area.
Gootee plans to work with them with the goal of providing the best care for the community. “It’s kind of nice to be able to send patients one way for a specific service … and for patients to have those options,” he said.
He will be hiring another optician and receptionist as he expands the hours at the clinic, offering evening and some Saturday appointments.
Besides the Pickels, the existing staff is staying. Sandi called them “shining stars.” “When you love the people you work with, it makes the job so much more fun and better,” she said.
She had lamented that she wouldn’t be able to keep the running joke she had with the bank. For years, she’s greeted them with, “I’m in to pick up the Pickel pouches.”
“And they all laugh. I mean, we do it every time. … I said, ‘It’s just not going to be the same anymore — and then they came up with ‘Gootee bags.’
“I think patients appreciate having people that enjoy their jobs,” she said.
“Giving back” has been Pickel’s aim with his career, and it’s one way he plans to spend his retirement as as well. In addition to reading more, he said he’d like to get back into volunteering with the Lions Club, which focuses on vision as one of its service areas.
“Just work, that’s all I’ve done,” he says with a smile that suggests he hasn’t regretted it.
“Especially people who have been longtime patients, I feel honored that they have allowed me to provide them with care.”
Dr. Merle Pickel
Training: Earned his doctor of optometry degree in 1970 from the Indiana University School of Optometry in Bloomington. Served in the U.S. Air Force from 1970 to 1972. Upon his return, he became an assistant professor at the IU School of Optometry, teaching ocular disease and clinical procedures.
Private practices: Opened a practice in Danville in 1977 and continued to work there until he could grow the Nashville practice to full-time. In 1979, Pickel, age 33, bought the Nashville practice from Dr. Bill Brotherton. It had existed since around 1954, when it was founded by Dr. John Carter, and was passed to Dr. Bob Gammon and other doctors associated with the IU school, some of whom were Pickel’s professors. Brown County Eye Care was housed in the Professional Building at Main and Van Buren streets downtown from 1979 until 1987, when it moved to its current location at 50 Willow St., Suite A.
Professional memberships: American Optometric Association, Indiana Optometric Association, Stonebelt Optometric Society; served two terms on the Indiana State Board of Optometry; served as examiner for the Indiana and Kentucky state boards and the National Board of Optometry. Longtime member of the Lions Club.
Married to: Sandi Pickel, whom he met at IU. She was the director of the optician/technician program for 43 years before retiring in 2015 and going to work at Brown County Eye Care Center. The couple have two children, Andrew and Megan, and one grandchild.
“Honestly, I think he’s built an incredible practice. To do the things that he’s always done and kind of continue his legacy is going to be important.”
Dr. Ben Gootee, on taking over Brown County Eye Care from Dr. Merle Pickel
Dr. Ben Gootee
Training: Majored in biology and minored in psychology at Purdue University. Earned his doctorate of optometry degree from IU in 2016.
Professional memberships: National, state and local optometric societies. Plans to join the Lions Club and Brown County Chamber of Commerce.
Married to: Kelsey Gootee; the couple welcomed their first child, Lucas, in January.