Pacific Optometry Alumnus, WWII Vet Establishes Scholarship for Other Veterans
Not everything in the life of Bernard Brown ‘49, OD ’50 has gone as he hoped. Especially his military service during World War II.
He started attending the University of Colorado under an Army program that was canceled one month later. He qualified to serve as an instructor in the Army Air Corps — the forerunner to the U.S. Air Force — only to be reassigned to the infantry and told he was going to Europe. And he earned a Purple Heart — the honor nobody wants to get — when he was wounded by shrapnel during the fighting in France.
But many, many other things have gone right for the 94-year-old widower, who is a popular figure in his southwest Portland condominium.
He helped to liberate the starving people who were imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp.
He married the love of life, Selma Nepom, and they remained together for 72 years, until she died in 2017.
He followed his father into the optometry business and made a successful living at it. Along the way, his son joined his practice.
And recently, he made was able to give back to his alma mater, the Pacific University College of Optometry, establishing a scholarship to fund tuition and other expenses for military veterans.
“I’ve told this to all my family over and over again, I am so fortunate just to be where I am today, because I’ve been through a lot,” he said from his living room, which overlooks the Willamette River. “And everything has been on the plus side.”
The War Years
During his senior at North Salem High School in 1943, Brown was drafted into the Army. The tide of the war had turned in favor of the Allies, but the fighting was far from over. After some temporary detours for his brief stint in college and preparing to be a flight instructor, he found himself assigned to an infantry unit bound for Europe, where the Axis powers were fighting to hold their gains from earlier in the war.
His overseas deployment amounted to 11 months, shorter than many, but still eventful.
When his unit was fighting through France, it came under artillery fire. One round landed nearby, killing a comrade and sending shrapnel into Brown’s back and upper leg. He said he didn’t care about being awarded the Purple Heart, but late in the war, it helped him qualify to come home a few months early.
“We were taught you either kill or get killed. We were trained that way,” he said. “You’re killing these young kids and you were a kid yourself, for no stupid reason at all.
“At that time, we didn’t know that. We didn’t think that way. You don’t think that way until you’ve grown up a little bit and realize that life is very precious. Why take it away from people?”
Brown had two years of high school German, so as his unit fought its way into Germany and Austria, he was sometimes pressed into service as an interpreter. He said captured German troops, most as young as he was, usually were quite willing to tell the Americans all they knew about their own army’s strength and movements.
At one point late in the war, Brown’s unit arrived at the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany after the German guards had fled, but the prisoners, wasted and weak, were still there. Brown’s unit was ordered to help evacuate them, sending them back toward food, clothing and medical care.
It was a haunting scene. Brown, who was 20 at the time, still remembers the prisoners calling “Wasser, bitte” — “Water, please.”
A little later and a little farther south, Brown and three of his buddies were hiding in the attic of an Austrian Gasthaus from the feared SS troops who were believed to be menacing the area near Innsbruck. They feared they would be overrun, so Brown, who is Jewish, did the best thing he could think to do: He buried his dog tags marked “H” for Hebrew and kept the backup tags he was given in case of being captured by Germans — tags embossed with “P” for Protestant. As it turned out, the SS troops never came.
Peacetime Life — and Optometry
Brown came home in the autumn of 1945.
Back in the States, Brown turned his attention to one of the women with whom he’d corresponded during the war. He’d kept up several steady correspondences with three young women he knew, but he was most intrigued by Selma Nepom of Portland, a childhood friend. Her wartime letters were friendly, newsy and direct before turning increasingly romantic. She and Brown exchanged hundreds of letters and, in February 1946, three months after his discharge, they married in downtown Portland’s Multnomah Hotel.
Soon afterward they used his G.I. Bill benefits to enroll together at Willamette University in his hometown of Salem, the second married couple ever to do so. Two years later, he transferred to Pacific to enter the optometry program. In Forest Grove, the couple borrowed money to buy a new, $7,500 house on B Street. While Bernard was a student, Selma worked at a Ford garage.
He was all business as a student, he said. He didn’t participate in Boxer tosses or engage much in college life. He was intent on becoming an optometrist as his father was.
He graduated from Pacific in 1950 and set up a practice in Salem that same year. The Salem Eye Clinic flourished, and Brown stayed until retiring in 2007. His son, Jordan, who joined him in the mid-1970s, now runs it. And it is still flourishing.
Selma Brown died in 2017, after 72 years of marriage to Bernard. Now he lives alone in the southwest Portland condominium they shared during her final years. It is full of their memories together, from the multiple photographs of her smiling face to the urn on his coffee table that contains her ashes.
With Selma’s passing, Bernard has been preparing to manage their estate. He was drawn, he said, to the idea of donating to Pacific, which launched him on his long and successful optometry career.
The Bernard & Selma Brown Optometry Scholarship for Veterans will support military veterans studying optometry — people like him, using their G.I. Bill benefits to prepare for a career in the civilian workplace.
“Optometry really means a lot to me. And when I see that there are students who want to be optometrists, I want to help them anyway I can,” he explained. And veterans, he said have “taken years out of their lives to do service for this country … I just have that feeling to help those, especially those who want to go into the same profession that I’ve been in.
“That profession has been so good for me and my family.”