Kelly: Stan Truhlsen never lost sight of modest roots - Omaha.com
Published Monday, May 27, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 1:00 pm
Globe-trotter
Kelly: Stan Truhlsen never lost sight of modest roots

Dr. Stan Truhlsen of Omaha made a circle with his thumb and forefinger, approximating the size of a human eye.

Poets say eyes are the window of the soul, and the doc appreciates poetry. But he is not a poet. He is a scientist, an eye doctor, a former president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Yes, he well knows the science and the structure of the eye.

And yet, as he made the little circle and recalled his original fascination with the concise but complicated orbs that open the world to us each day, he expressed amazement in celestial terms.

“God had to have a hand in it,” he said. “It is such a delicate organ. The tissue of the eye, the retina, the optic nerve and so forth. They work, and you often wonder how.”

Eyes are the subjects of literature, music and, for the fortunate, admiration. Now, on the rapidly expanding campus of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha has another eye-catching structure to admire: the Stanley M. Truhlsen Eye Institute.

The $20 million, three-story structure, for which Stan and wife Dorothy were the lead donors, was dedicated Wednesday at 40th and Leavenworth Streets.

UNMC says the institute will join the ranks of the nation's leading ophthalmology centers and “is poised to revolutionize eye care in the region.”

Dr. Truhlsen, 92, says he is in good health from family genetics and from riding a stationary bike daily. But his good fortune is not limited to his health and vitality — he also grew a financial fortune.

As told in the new book “The Oracle & Omaha” by my World-Herald colleague Steve Jordon, Stan was one of a dozen physicians invited to a 1960 dinner at the Hilltop House at 49th and Dodge Streets.

He met a 29-year-old money manager named Warren Buffett, who was looking for investors of $10,000 each. (That's equivalent to about $75,000 each today.) Ten of the doctors signed on.

Buffett became legendary, and early investors grew very wealthy.

At his home last week in the middle of Omaha, southwest of 90th Street and West Dodge Road, Stan said his lifestyle never changed greatly. But he has often thanked Buffett for allowing himself and other early investors to donate in many ways that have helped Omaha.

“I'm just proud to be an Omahan,” the doc said. “With the things that have happened, particularly in the last 15 years or so, we're on a roll.”

Dr. Truhlsen and other philanthropists have played a large role in civic improvements. But like many of the others, he started modestly.

He grew up in Herman, Neb., about 30 miles north of Omaha, where his father ran a hardware store, sold furniture and served as an undertaker.

At 10, Stan walked on the cinder track before the first football game he attended at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, and a ball landed near him. He has owned season tickets since the 1950s but still thrills at the childhood memory: “I picked up the ball and got to throw it to a Cornhusker!”

The Depression and Dust Bowl years were hard. He recalls his dad's customers paying by barter, and his mother nearly crying upon returning home one Sunday and finding a door blown open and thick dust on the floor.

Stan graduated from high school in 1937 at 16 and from Nebraska in 1941. He had taken ROTC, but because he was not yet 21 like his classmates, he wasn't immediately commissioned.

Instead, he wore a uniform through medical school in Omaha, “falling in” at reveille each morning at UNMC. Because of the war, classwork was accelerated through summers, and the class of '44 was the first to graduate in three years.

He spent two years stateside in the Army and then worked in Albany, N.Y., and St. Louis. While in pathology lab studying various tissues, he settled on ophthalmology for a career and returned to Omaha.

He and his first wife, Ruth, had four children, and she died after 33 years of marriage.

The four jointly donated to establish the Ruth H. Truhlsen Educational Center at the new Truhlsen Institute. They are William Truhlsen and Stanley Truhlsen Jr. of Omaha; Nancy Brager of Lincoln; and Barbara Mitchell of Dallas.

Dr. Truhlsen and Dorothy, whom he calls Dottie, have been married for 32 years. She also has four children.

At their home last week, Stan reminisced in his den, which includes a large rolltop desk that had sat in a bank and in his father's hardware store in Herman.

A photo showed Dr. Truhlsen with President Ronald Reagan in the White House when Stan served as national president for eye doctors. (Reagan enjoyed telling that he wore only one contact lens, so that one eye dominated for distance and the other for reading.)

A 1985 photo showed Dr. Truhlsen in elaborate garb as the king of Ak-Sar-Ben, the philanthropic group that annually throws an autumn coronation and ball.

Another showed Stan in 1990 at the Omaha Country Club with golfing legend Arnold Palmer. “I tied him on one hole. We both bogeyed the eleventh.”

Stan and Dottie have been avid golfers, but he said the nine holes he played in California last winter might be his last. Though he made a birdie that day, “the ball just doesn't seem to go as far anymore.”

Retired for 20 years, he has traveled the world before he stepped away from his practice and since. Like Warren Buffett, though, he always enjoys being in Omaha.

He remains active in the community and is proud to be part of “phenomenal” growth at UNMC under Dr. Harold Maurer, the chancellor who years ago set his sights high.

As the Truhlsen Institute grows and attracts more and more researchers and clinicians, you can be sure that Stan Truhlsen will proudly follow its progress — naturally, with a watchful eye.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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