Renowned optometrist ‘cared a lot about people’

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
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A common thread wound through Dr. Edwin Novak’s long optometry career, volunteer work abroad and Catholic chaplain service: a love of helping others.

“He was a humanitarian,” said his brother, Richard Nowakowski. “He definitely cared a lot about people.”

Dr. Novak died Saturday, June 11, 2016, in Ventura, California. He was 92.

The former Detroiter opened a private practice in Flint and spent nearly 50 years there, earning renown as a pioneer in the low-vision field.

Working with Dr. William Feinbloom of New York, he helped to develop a lens to treat people with sight issues, relatives and associates said.

Dr. Novak, who was on the Michigan Board of Optometry and an American Academy of Optometry fellow, also lectured on low vision in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Israel and Argentina, his family said. “He helped so many people,” said his daughter, Jane Exell.

His interest in helping those in need steered the optometrist to another charitable venture. For years, he traveled to Panama and worked with a small volunteer team to offer care to natives lacking modern medical assistance, The Detroit News reported in 1997.

He logged long hours examining villagers and distributing thousands of glasses donated by the Lions Club, relatives said.

“My job there is to fit as many people with corrective glasses as is possible,” Dr. Novak told The News.

After treating a woman with poor eyesight, “she was able to experience the world in a way that was new ... and it changed her whole personality,” recalled his son, Peter Novak.

Ordained a deacon in the Catholic Diocese of Lansing in 1995, he worked in parish ministry through Blessed Sacrament in Burton and was a Genesee County jail chaplain, relatives said.

“My dad was just a really awesome person, very giving,” said another daughter, Lori Novak Kintz. “He was very committed to the things that he felt were important — his family and his faith and his career and his community.”

Born May 26, 1924, in Detroit, he graduated from Pershing High School and briefly attended Wayne State University.

After earning his optometry degree in Illinois, he opened an office in Detroit and Brighton before moving to Flint in 1949, relatives said.

Dr. Novak also was active in civic affairs. He was elected to the Michigan State Board of Education and the Mott Community College Board of Trustees; and became a chairman on the Michigan School for the Deaf’s advisory board, according to his family.

Dr. Novak also was active with the Third Order of St. Francis as well as the Knights of Columbus.

Honors included the Patenge Medal of Public Service from Michigan State University; the Michigan Optometric Association Lifetime Achievement Award; and The News naming him a Michiganian of the Year for 1996.

“He just had an amazing side to him with service,” Peter Novak said. “That was such a great role model to have as a child.”

After retiring, Dr. Novak moved to Saline and Ann Arbor, then relocated to California in 2010 to live with his daughter and her family.

Whether coping with health issues or visiting the grocery store, he retained his trademark wit and humor.

“He was a very funny man. We have a whole list of his ‘Edwinisms,’ we call them, that even the grandchildren repeat,” Exell said. “He kind of lives on through his one-liners.”

A memorial service is planned in Flint.

Besides his brother, son and daughters, other survivors include his wife of 70 years, Cleo Mae “Penny”; children Patricia, Kristen, Michael, Stephen and Paul; 17 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his brothers, Frank Nowakowski and Gerald Novak.

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