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The cover of the spring/summer 2004 Issue of SFSU Magazine

 

SFSU Magazine Online, Spring/Summer  2004, Volume 4, Number 1.

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  Alumni & FriendsAlumnus Willie Danz holds up an eye he has crafted for a patient.

 

Eye Contact

A career making tens of thousands of prosthetic eyeballs wasn't exactly what Willie Danz (B.S., '72) planned when he majored in business at SF State. But then again, it's hard to fight history. I guess my genetics took over," says Danz, a fifth-generation ocularist, who initially had plans to go into computers when he graduated. Now, with labs in San Francisco and Santa Rosa, he is one of only four people in the Bay Area and about 400 worldwide who create artificial eyes.

Danz's clients have lost either one or both eyes due to illness, birth defects or injury. While he can't make them see again, he can improve the way they look and feel about themselves. "That's the biggest reward, helping people," he says.

Danz met one of his more memorable clients at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, where he once had a contract to create prosthetic eyes for inmates. Because he created several eyes a month, Danz decided to write each recipient's name on the back to prevent mix-ups. At the time, he never imagined one of those eyeballs would place him in the national spotlight. When one of the inmates later attempted to flee a robbery, he jumped from a second-story building and lost his eyeball upon landing. Police soon discovered the prosthesis as well as the fugitive's name on back. Aaron "Eyeball" Harris was caught one year later, with Danz's help, on "America's Most Wanted."

Danz was trained through the ocularist professional society, going through a five-year apprenticeship under sponsoring ocularists, in this case his two brothers. "There is a bit of tradition in this occupation," says Danz, whose father's mother's grandmother married into a glass-eye-making family in Germany in 1850.

While today's artificial eyes are made from acrylic plastic instead of glass, much in the profession continues as it has for generations. To create the $2,000 eyeballs, Danz makes an impression of the patient's socket, creates the model eye, then uses oil paints to add colors. It's a skill he hopes to pass on to the next generation. "I'd like to take on an apprentice before my retirement," says Danz, who has a 25-year-old son, David. "I'm hoping that it will be my son. We'll see!"

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