Through the years, some well meaning Abilenians fell short on having a clear vision for their fair city.
All they needed was corrective lenses. And a Dr. Dressen was their man.
First, it was Dr. John Dressen, whose family immigrated from Germany. He started his business here in 1921.
He was followed by Dr. Ed Dressen, his son.
This month, Dressen optometry celebrates 100 years of continuous family service to Abilene with Dr. Russell Dressen representing a third generation.
It looks as if the business will end with him. Now 76, his two children chose other professions.
“I couldn’t talk my kids into it,” the good-natured Dressen said recently at his office at the corner Hickory and North 10th streets. “They said science wasn’t their bag.”
They entered other ventures, he said. Kristen Dressen Kiker is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Apex while son Jeff is with SWBC Mortgage and in 2020 ran for Taylor County commissioner.
You could say they didn’t see “eye to eye” with dad on a career, but was he was OK with that.
“They are very successful in what they are doing, and that’s fine,” dad said.
The Dressen business will be honored by the Abilene Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 18. Russell Dressen doesn’t have immediate retirement plans.
“I take after my dad and granddad. We show up all the time,” he said.
But the milestone makes him proud. His grandfather not only helped West Texans see, he made sure they saw the light. He was a preacher, who once rode a horse to rural churches near Abilene.
Russell Dressen learned the value of serving their Abilene neighbors from his father, who learned from his father.
He now wears spectacles himself, starting when he was 45. But on this occasion for celebration, he can read the 20-15 line on the eye chart just fine. It says:
C O N G R A T U L A T I O N S.
JOHN DRESSEN: Building a family business
Dr. John Dressen was born 1882 in Ida Grove, Iowa. His family had immigrated to the United States from Germany.
He and his father bought land in the Texas Panhandle and grew wheat and corn. They split the land in 320-acre tracts, Russell Dressen said, and sold those to other immigrants. Their headquarters was near Spearman, named for Thomas E. Spearman, a vice president of the North Texas and Santa Fe Railway, and 93 miles northeast of Amarillo.
The younger Dressen married a neighbor’s sister and with land sale profits and went farther west – to Needles, Calif., to attend McCormick Medical School. His training included optometry, which became his focus.
After graduation, he returned to Texas and practiced in Post.
But this new town on the Texas & Pacific rail line was needing medical personnel, and John Dressen was recruited to Abilene. Dressen joined a Dr. West, a dentist, and a Dr. Corbin, a medical doctor, on relocation here in1921.
Dressen opened his optometry practice in 1922 downtown at the city’s oldest bank today, then known as Farmers and Merchants Bank (now First Financial Bank). The bank once stood at the current location of the recently sold Abilene Reporter-News.
In 1929, Dressen moved to the new Mims Buliding at the corner of Cypress and North Third streets. He officed there until 1952, when son Ed joined him in business and they moved to what was called the Dressen Building at the corner of North Fifth and Cedar streets.
That building no longer is there – it was situated at the current construction site of the DoubleTree by Hilton.
ED DRESSEN: Marching back to Abilene
Dr. Ed Dressen was born in 1909 and graduated in 1929 from Abilene High School.
Abilene High bills itself as the “oldest marching band in Texas” and Ed Dressen had a role in that. The band was started in 1926 by Raymond “Prof” Bynum. His first drum major was Dressen.
There is a story on how that came to be.
Ed Dressen was sent to Staunton Military Academy in Virginia.
“Dad was a cutup,” Russell Dressen said. “Granddad had to get him out of town for a while.”
It seems the teen had developed a tattoo machine using a record player. The needle was used to ink skin.
“He tattooed a bunch of kids in town and their parents were going to lynch him,” he said.
His suitemate there was a man who would run for president – Barry Goldwater. They corresponded with each other for decades.
He finished high school in Abilene. Bynum knew music and Dressen knew how to march, so the pairing proved historic.
Ironically, Russell Dressen would enter high school as a sophomore at Cooper High, opened in 1961. He was in the first class to attend Cooper all three years. Thus, the Dressen family roots go deep in local education history.
Ed Dressen graduated from Southern College of Optometry and served in the Navy in World War II, Russell Dressen said. He married Margie Brewton while stationed at Bethesda, Md.
After the war, he took refresher classes at Southern so he could pass the exam to practice optometry in Texas.
He worked with his father in their building at North Fifth and Cedar until 1973, when a new office was built not far away on Hickory Street.
Ed Dressen became involved in civic organizations, such as Lions Club.
When Russell began working here, he suggested that his son join the Rotary Club.
“He said, ‘We’ll spread it out,'” Dressen did.
Russell Dressen did join and still is active in the Wednesday Rotary Club.
Yet, as an optometrist, he works with Lions on their eyeglass projects.
Russell Dressen served as president of the Abilene club and one in Hamlin. They had a one-day practice in Hamlin for 30 years and because it conflicted with his Wednesday club time here, he made up there. So much he transferred his membership to the Hamlin club
Ed Dressen also was involved in Boy Scouts, another organization that eventually involved his son.
The advance from one generation to the next proved to be more than business.
RUSSELL DRESSEN: Following in the footsteps
Russell Dressen was the first boy in the family born here, arriving in 1946 at the former St. Ann’s Hospital that is four blocks from his current office.
He attended south Abilene schools – Alta Vista Elementary and South Junior High (later Jefferson) before going to Cooper.
Asked if he had a claim to fame like his father, Dressen said, “Probably not.”
Then, he promptly said when he attended the Boy Scout Jamboree, his tentmate was a skinny kid from Paint Creek.
Rick Perry would become the longest-serving governor of Texas.
When Perry years later wrote a book promoting Scouting, he summoned his tentmate from Abilene to Austin to record their stories. Dressen obliged, he said, even if he didn’t agree with all of Perry’s politics.
“On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For” was published in 2014.
A 1964 Cooper grad, Dressen played football and was good enough as an offensive and defensive lineman to earn college interest.
He first went to McMurry College, he said, but, well, was asked to leave.
That all started with missing required daily chapel because he worked as a cameraman for KRBC TV. Dressen got that worked out but the dean had other issues – his social club and his friends – and told the student he was dismissed.
Dressen went one semester at then-North Texas State (now University of North Texas) before landing in Angelo State in San Angelo. He played football one year for the Rams before an injury sidelined him, and he graduated in 1969. He was honored by ASU in 2019 as a distinguished alumni.
One good thing about transferring to Angelo State is that is where he met his wife of 52 years come December, Linda. To show up a friend in the cafeteria, he walked up to her and asked her go to a basketball game. She accepted.
“She has put up with me for 52 years,” he said. “I thought she was smarter than that.”
Linda Dressen taught school and finished her career at the Crime Victims Crisis Center.
He entertained ideas of becoming a doctor and although he was accepted to couple of medical schools, Dressen had second thoughts.
“That summer, I looked at my desires and thought, ‘No, I don’t want to get up at 3 in the morning and deliver babies,'” he said. “I am not that dedicated. I like my family time, and I like to be around people.
“I knew what optometry provided. It’s a good living. You’re not going to get rich, but it’s a good living.”
He decided becoming the third optometrist in the family was a pretty good deal.
His father helped secure a place at the University of Houston at its well known College of Optometry as one of five standby student to replace a student who dropped out. All five got in and, he said, graduated together.
Dressen said some students at the time where entering school to avoid the Vietnam War draft “and they weren’t that serious” about becoming optometrists, he said.
Half the class he joined did not complete their education there.
He graduated in 1973 and joined his father in business here, at their new location.
His grandfather died in 1965, while his father died in 1998.
He is the last in the line, and has plans to extend the business a few more years.
“As long as I enjoy it and as long as I can do a good job,” he said. “Either one of those, I’m outta here because I don’t want to short-change people. And if I don’t enjoy it, hey, I want to do something else.
“But I enjoy it. I enjoy visiting with people and helping people.”
And it’s good to be his own boss, he said, smiling.
“If I want to go fishing,” he said, “I go mark it off.”
What’s cooking, Doc?
A Reporter-News file is filled with photos of Russell Dressen.
It was started with Boy Scout campfires, he said. Dressen would become an Eagle Scout.
The childhood experience stuck with him when he returned to Abilene. He served as a scoutmaster for 33 years.
He participated in early-day cookoffs, which became a big deal in Texas, and once had his recipe of green chile grits printed in the newspaper.
“I entered them for fun,” he said. “And ended up winning some of them.
Dressen had wanted time for himself and made good on his vow to use that time wisely. A campfire at 3 a.m. was more fun than delivering a baby.
A recipe he came up for a cookoff at the former Old Abilene Town required ingredients that cowboys had access to on the trail. That is the setup today at the Western Heritage Classic’s chuckwagon event.
“I wanted to do something different,” he said. “I did frog legs, green chile grits and a green chile souffle.
The judges balked at frog legs … until Dressen told them his frogs had been caught at a pond 400 yards from the cookoff site.
It was a winner.
Dressen mentioned he helped cookmaster Tom Perini a few times but did not take credit for Perini’s famous tenderloin.
Making a difference
Reflecting on what the other Dressen men taught him, Russell Dressen said he learned their business is a people business.
“My granddad started this as a family practice,” he said. “That meant the patient who walked in the door was family. The most important person here is the one who walks in the door.”
Staff over the years has been trained to think the same way, he said.
It doesn’t hurt that getting your eyes checked is less stressful than perhaps going to the doctor.
“We don’t have a needle in the place,” he said, laughing.
Yet, he said, optometrists play a role in a person’s overall health.
“A lot of people don’t realize the eye is the window on the body,” he said. An optometrist can pick up on things such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes, and suggest to the patient to see a doctor. A person’s double vision could be an indication of MS, for example.
Dressen learned from his elders to become involved in community activities. His grandmother, Jessie Dressen, help start Abilene Woman’s Club, he said. And was on the state parks board.
In fact, he said, after seeing roadside parks during a trip to Washington state, she suggested that would be good for Texas travelers going long distances.
She went to an Abilene businessman named Orthel Henson and got him to donated 6 acres in Cedar Gap, south of Abilene, “and they put in the first roadside park in the state of Texas,” Dressen said. That lead to the establishment of picnic stops across the state.
She also was the board of regents for Simmons College, now Hardin-Simmons University.
“So, we have had an involvement with the community,” her grandson said.
Yes, he considered moving. But never seriously.
“With the background I had and the examples I had to live by, I was comfortable here,” Dressen said. “I liked the people here. I’m like everybody else. I don’t like the weather but by golly I Iike the people.”
One hundred years in business is much better than it being 100 degrees.
Greg Jaklewicz is editor of the Abilene Reporter-News and general columnist. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.