Gay Chicago author, activist and Fermalogic, Inc. COO Roy Wesley has written a new book about his fatherInvisible Vision: The hidden story of Dr. Newton K. Wesley, American contact-lens pioneer.
Windy City Times: What made you decide to write this book? I see that your father was an academic, inventor, clinician, promoter and business owner.
Roy Wesley: When my father died in 1993, I decided to write his legacy of accomplishment for his descendants and for the historical record. It occurred to me that much of his work had been overlooked by many writers in his field. His white partner, George Jessen, sometimes received credit for accomplishments in the contact lens field while my father was overlooked. This has nothing to do with George, but the cultural bias of writers. It is part of the continuing legacy of systemic racism that is able to overlook minority groups who have been successful in their lives and work.
WCT: Do you think your father felt any pressure because he was the first-born son and therefore was made Ichi-ban (the person with all the privileges and responsibilities in a Japanese family)? I see that he chose to add the K. initial for his middle name as an adult in honor of his older brother Kanji who died in infancy.
RW: Yes, my father felt that he had the responsibility of looking after all his younger siblings. He took that duty seriously not just when they were young children but throughout his life. He also took care of his parents, especially after their house exploded from a gas leak. He paid for the rebuilding of a new home on the side of the old one.
WCT: Why do you think your grandparents chose the name Newton for your father? What about their choices of Corinne, Alice and Edward for his younger siblings?
RW: Newton received his first name from the doctor who delivered him. His parents were not sure what to name him and ask him for advice. The doctor suggested Newton, after Sir Isaac Newton. The one thing that his parents were sure of was that they wanted their children to be 100 percent Americans and made sure that each one had American names.
WCT: You tell the story of your father having to get eyeglasses for the first time at the age of nine and how that changed his life. What should readers take away from this piece of information?
RW: Having his sight restored at an early age probably seemed like a miracle to him. It may have been the seed that help to lead him into optometry. It foreshadowed his almost immediate acceptance of optometry as a profession as he went through the Yellow Pages. It is almost as if it were pre-destined. And of course losing his site again to Keratoconus was another obstacle that he had to overcome and that led him to a quest to improve the uncomfortable large lenses of the time to smaller contacts that could be worn easily.
WCT: Your father was the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Portland Chapter president, among other leadership positions.
RW: The Portland JACL was founded in 1929. Newton would have been 12 years old at the time. He was elected to be the fifth president of the Portland JACL in 1941 when he was 23 years old. The chapter remained dormant during the war years and was revived in 1946. The JACL was a patriotic American organization that tried to portray Japanese-Americans as loyal citizens as war broke out with Japan. They fought against the discrimination and hate rising against the community at the time by dispelling false rumors.
WCT: While doing your research, did you find that your father faced any pushback from members of his own Japanese-American community because of his status as an auxiliary police and firefighter member and giving information to the FBI?
RW: There may have been pushback, but I have not uncovered any negative comments.
WCT: What was your reaction when you read your father's testimony (that you included in the book) at the Tolan Committee Hearings in Portland on March 12, 1942?
RW: Newton went to the committee with hope that they would be convinced not to relocate the Japanese-Americans from their homes because he hoped to prove that they were very loyal and could not be hostile enemies as some of the press depicted them. I was sad that he was not able to accomplish his goal and that the committee, including supposed friends, turned against him and the Japanese-American community.
WCT: Your first years of life were spent at the Minidoka Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. What should people understand about this time in U.S. History?
RW: My parents were born free American citizens on the Pacific Northwest coast. They happen to have Japanese immigrant parents. At the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, they were incarcerated with nearly 4,000 other Japanese Americans from Portland, Oregon. I happened to be born on the very day we were supposed to be sent to the temporary prison surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. My dad said, "Roy kicked his way to freedom." My freedom was short-lived as I was classified as an enemy alien even though I was just a newborn babe. My mother and I were given three days to recover from the birth, and transported to the prison where my grandparents, father and older brother were already incarcerated. This is what extreme racial profiling and discrimination does in a free society when there are perceived threats from an easily identifiable population of its citizens.
WCT: What surprised you the most about your father's recollections about what happened to him and your family during WWII including fact that he was able to attend Earlham College in Indiana while the rest of you were still incarcerated and his decision to change his last name from Uyesugi to Wesley during that time?
RW: I was surprised that he did not mention his family incarcerated in Minidoka at the time of his ChapelTalk to the students and faculty at Earlham College. I have often wondered why he omitted his family's circumstances.
WCT: Why should readers thank ophthalmologist, Dr. Eric Wolfgang Fantl, in relation to your father's career trajectory after WWII?
RW: Dr. Fantl was a young ophthalmologist with a modest practice in Chicago. He was born, raised and educated in Germany and Austria. He was a recent immigrant with his wife at the time to the United States. He arrived in 1938 at the age of 28. While doing research at the Library of Congress, I found his office address at 1001 W. Leland here in Chicago, which is near where I currently live. I visited the site and was moved to see the door with the address and imagined their meetings. The building has been torn down and replaced with new construction. I found it remarkable that after my dad visited so many eye professionals, he is the only one to have correctly diagnosed his eye condition and led him to discover the large scleral lenses which helped his vision.
WCT: Tease the readers about your father's contributions in the area of contact lenses.
RW: Without his work on contact lenses, millions of Americans would not have contact lenses as a vision aid. He trained doctors in the use and fitting of contacts and educated the public about them. He took an unknown concept and made it a reality that benefited millions.
WCT: What are your thoughts about the time when then-2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney used your father's business, Wesley Jessen, as an example of his successful investment strategy, and this being satirized on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?
RW: I was surprised and amazed that Jon Stewart used Wesley Jessen as an example. It pointed out to me that company buy outs are not for the benefit of the general population, but a tool used by the wealthy to create more wealth.
WCT: Tell the readers about your father's twin Beech airplane and your first experience being a passenger. I see that he learned how to fly so he could get to other locales faster and easier to facilitate his teaching and training of doctors, opticians and technicians about contact lenses.
RW: I had flown on commercial prop planes (propeller driven planes in the age before jets were around) since the age of nine to go from Chicago to Portland to visit my grand-parents. I knew Dad was taking lessons and saw all the single engine planes he trained on, so getting to the twin Beach was a steady progression of crafts. Nonetheless, I was excited to ride in it the first time. It was like a luxury liner compared to the small rather cramped single engine planes he had previously. It was significantly noisier than the small single engine planes and you could feel the greater power generated by the large engines.
WCT: What would be your elevator pitch to someone you just met about why they should read your book?
RW: Invisible Vision is a book to discover one courageous man's adventure in life going from humble beginnings in a logging camp and farming to becoming an eye doctor fighting his own blindness to develop contact lenses that saved his vision and the vision of millions of people in the world. In the process, he endured the Great Depression, racial discrimination, alienation during WWII and corporate greed that tried to steal his company.
WCT: Is there an overall message you want to convey with this book, especially in light of the attacks against the AAPI community since the pandemic began?
RW: Structural racism endemic in society and outright discrimination does not stop the truly motivated individuals from accomplishing great things. It can slow progress, but it will be overcome.
See roywesley.com/. For more on Roy Wesley's life, visit https://www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/Chicagoan-looks-back-on-concentration-camps-for-Japanese-Americans/58294.html.