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.
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.