Gerry Berges can be described as many things — mentor, volunteer, Man of the Year and, occasionally, an optometrist.
He’ll be retiring from the latter at the end of December after 35 years running Kennewick’s Center Vision & Contact Lens Clinic. The other descriptors, however, are likely to live on.
“I’ve actually known (Berges) since I was 12 years old; he was actually my eye doctor when I was a kid,” said Aaron Banta, now co-owner of Center Vision with another optometrist, Aaron Qunell. Greg Luehrs is also Berges’ longtime partner at the clinic.
Banta is among a long list of patients, friends and co-workers whose lives have been touched by Berges — a husband of 42 years to his wife, Cathy, a father of four and a grandfather of eight.
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Since moving to Kennewick in 1977 from Tacoma, Berges has cemented himself as something of a community booster extraordinaire in the Mid-Columbia.
“If you cut him open, the Tri-Cities would fall out,” Banta said.
He was co-chairman of the Kennewick schools bond and levy committee from 1998 to 2008, and worked to secure funds for the building of the Tri-Cities Cancer Center in the 1990s. He was named Kennewick’s Man of the Year in 1997 — a distinction that hasn’t lost its sheen.
Berges, 65, also helped usher the Tri-City Americans into the community in the late-1980s. The team’s owner at the time, Ron Dixon, wanted to move the Americans to Kennewick from British Columbia and build a coliseum in the Tri-Cities, but he needed incentive.
Dixon asked that at least 2,000 season tickets be sold to show support for the team’s relocation. Berges was tasked with leading the committee. In one month, Berges and his team sold about 3,500 season tickets to establish a fan base. The rest is history.
While Berges’ civic accomplishments caught the eye of the community, it was his actions at his clinic that may have made the most lasting impressions. He mentored young doctors like Banta, fostered relationships with generations of patients and kept an open door for at least one close friend.
“Gerry is an excellent person, very sincere — he’s a Christian,” said long-time patient Sandi Strawn. “He carries through his business with that. He’s just a very good optometrist.”
She and her husband, Dean, have been visiting Berges’ clinic since it opened. Now, decades later, Strawn’s daughter remains a patient, along with a son-in-law and two granddaughters.
“He and his staff have just been consistently excellent,” Strawn said. “We didn’t have any desire to go (anywhere else).”
Berges is working to carry his charitable mindset into retirement.
He has been volunteering with Soul Soup, a local effort to feed the hungry. Meals are served ta 5 p.m. Mondays at Prayer Watch Christian Center in Kennewick, 11 a.m. Thursdays at the Kennewick Baptist Church and Thursday evenings at the First United Methodist Church in Kennewick.
Berges has been a Kiwanis member since 1977 and plans to continue his work with the volunteer organization. He’d like to increase his work with Seattle’s Millionair Club Charity, which helps the homeless and unemployed in the greater Seattle area with finding jobs and providing support services.
Luehrs, who roomed with Berges at Pacific University, traveled the world with the Air Force until his retirement in 1993. That’s when he learned that his old college roommate was looking for a partner.
The two met at a conference in Atlanta, discussed the opportunity and agreed to give it a try for a year to see how things shook out.
“We were together for 21 years in the Tri-Cities,” Luehrs said.
“He’s so personable,” he said. “One of the first things I remember when I came into the practice is that you want to treat the patient fairly, like they’re family. And if you see them out in the community, you want to greet them and shake their hand.”
Banta and Qunell finished buying the clinic within the past two years. They plan on moving to a new building on Grandridge Boulevard between Center Parkway and Columbia Center Boulevard within a year.
Berges and Luehrs still own the center’s building at 4015 W. Clearwater Ave., and it’s uncertain what that building will house.
Banta envisions the new Center Vision & Contact Lens Clinic offering customers new technology and feature an optical area three times larger than the current space.
A retirement celebration is planned from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Country Gentleman in Kennewick. Well-wishers are welcome to attend.