BELLE GLADE — Born and raised here, you could almost say caring for the eyes of the Glades is in Michael Fliehs’ blood. His father moved to Belle Glade when he was about 10 years old. Michael’s grandfather was a farmer who came here through Ellis Island, and his name is actually on the Ellis Island records. He settled in Wisconsin, and after a friend came down and vacationed in Clewiston, the friend told Michael’s grandfather there was black stuff down here they called muck, and he needed to come see it.
Once he came to see it, he moved his entire family. Michael’s dad, Donald, went to the University of Miami, and got a degree in accounting, but he made a decision later to go to optometry school. Donald’s father gave him two $10 gold pieces to move to Chicago and he used one to buy clothes for optometry school and the other for room and board. Back in the 1940s, there were only two optometry schools in the country, and one of those was in Chicago. Now, there are 10 or so, said Michael. When he finished his training after four years, he returned to Belle Glade and opened his practice, Glades Eye Care Inc. He was there for almost 59 years before he passed away.
Michael has been working in the family eye care business since he was 19 years old. He wasn’t sure if that was what he wanted to do with his life, and he dabbled in farming a little bit and even went to school to become a professional water skier. He wanted to ski at Cypress Gardens. He made the ski team in Lakeland — The South Florida Moccasins — the No. 1 ski team in the country, he said, but school was a little rough for him, and he did not do well in college. In Belle Glade, his graduating class had 28 kids in it, and then he went to a school with over 400 kids. It was overwhelming.
He went to Avon Park Community College for a while, and then, he transferred back home and went to work on a farm and wanted to get married. He told his dad, and he said, “You don’t even have a real job. You work on a farm.” So he went to work at the eye clinic, and the rest is history, he said.
He worked at the clinic for about six months and then decided to do an apprenticeship program. There are two routes to becoming an optician. You can go to college for four years, or you can do on-the-job training. It takes a little longer, and you do quarterly reports to the state, having either a doctor or an optician sign off on the quarterly reports and what you are doing and learning. Then you take the exact same state board exam as if you went to school.
He felt like he had a leg up on it, because instead of just reading in a book about how to do the different things, he got to do them hands on, and he said, “I had one of the best teachers that ever could have taught me the eye profession.” It took him about six years. Back then it was 7,000-plus hours you had to log with the state before taking your state board exam.
An optician is the technical side of the business. They do the glasses, the contacts, the fitting and adjusting of the eyewear, etc. The optometrist is the eye doctor, the medical part of the business. The ophthalmological part is the surgery part.
They make most of the glasses in-house except the ones certain insurances require them to send out.
One of the good things about being a small company is they are able to help others who are in need, he said. They work with the Lion’s Club, providing free eye exams and then charging cost for the glasses. Sometimes they hear from a schoolteacher that there might be a student who is struggling in class because he can’t see well. “It’s not always about making money,” he said. “It’s about helping people.”
The lab they have used for many years, Quality Optical Service, is a small, third generation lab. They are good Christian people, and when they know the patient just can’t afford it and really needs the glasses, they will often work with them and sometimes don’t charge for the glasses. They are hoping to team up with Quality Optical and a frame company called Visual Eyes to take a mission trip to the Bahamas soon. The company that will be flying them over, free of charge, is called Island Tyme Charters. They would all donate their time and services to knock out some exams and glasses for the people there.
He looks at his work the way his dad did, even though he is blessed to get a paycheck for it, he doesn’t feel like it is a job. “Giving people the gift of sight is a very rewarding career,” he said.
They do a lot of prescriptions for Cuba and Haiti and send the glasses over there. On his wall, he has a picture of two young women from Haiti who received glasses and sent thank-you letters afterward. They actually have a large collection of things on their “wall of fame.” These are photos or letters from people they have helped over the years.
The Fliehs family legacy of caring for the eyes of Belle Glade will carry on even longer now, because Michael’s daughter is in her third year in Tallahassee, and her major is optometry. When she completes her four-year degree in Tallahassee, she plans to go to optometry school. “I know that really makes my dad happy,” said Michael.
Michael coaches high school football for his old alma mater, Glades Day School, in his spare time.
He has been volunteering for 17 years now, he said. He was involved in the Elks Lodge for years until it closed recently. He and his family are members of the local Lutheran church and are very active there. His dad taught him about community involvement, he explained. He was on many boards all over town and was instrumental in helping to bring the new hospital to Belle Glade. Glades Eye Care was not work for Michael’s dad. It was his passion. “He loved his patients,” said Michael. “When you live in a small community, you see these people every day, not only as patients. You see them in church. You see them in the grocery store and the convenience stores. There are things we can give people that Walmart, Target and Lenscrafters can’t.
We’re small, and we know our patients. That’s why Pat Brennan in Okeechobee has been in business for 50 years. That’s why we have been open for almost 63 years. You don’t stay open that long without treating people how they should be treated.”
”I am who I am, and I do what I do. I don’t really feel very inspiring,” Michael said.