The accomplishments of Dr. Mollie Armstrong, who was instrumental is establishing optometry as a profession in Texas in the early 20th century, were so numerous, they wouldn’t all fit on the historical marker.
“We had to write three or four versions,” Brown County Historical Commissioner president Ronnie Lappe said at Saturday morning’s dedication of the marker. “We couldn’t get everything on there we wanted.”
But commission historian Alexia Bieniek was finally able to edit a lengthy biography to fit the Texas Historical Marker that local and state officials along with family members dedicated in front of the office of Brownwood optometrists Dr. Kent Comolli and Dr. Randy Ethridge at Austin Avenue and Avenue C.
“My family is so indebted for this honor,” said Dr. Jay Vollet of Dallas, Armstrong’s great-grandson. He is a senior therapeutic specialty consultant who works for Pfizer Inc. as an oncologist. “I have great memories of visiting in Brownwood as a child. I remember the jewelry store, the house on Center Avenue, the great cafeteria here, going to the movies. This is where my mother and father met during World War II. Brownwood is a special place for me.”
According to the history prepared for the marker, Armstrong — born in Bell County in 1875 — came to Brownwood where her watchmaker husband, W.D. Armstrong, opened a jewelry store with his brother. The custom of the time was for jewelers to sell eyeglasses, and her interest in optometry developed after a salesman who called on the store fitted her with glasses and stopped her headaches. She studied optometry, and opened a practice in Brownwood in 1899 — the first woman to do so in Texas and one of the first in the nation.
She was a charter member of the Texas Optometric Association, for which she was the first woman president. She enlisted the help of a childhood friend, Texas Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, to create the Texas State Board of Examiners in Optometry.
Dr. Brian Blount, a Beaumont optometrist and president of of the TOA, described Armstrong as intelligent, strong, persistent and dedicated.
“She was a woman who was first in many things,” Blount said. “Optometry is a fantastic profession, and because of her, I can do what I do.”
The association has recently named a public service award in Armstrong’s honor as a way to recognize Texas optometrists who make significant contributions outside the profession. The first honoree this year is Laurie Sorrenson of Austin.
“Mollie would have been extremely proud of this young lady,” Blount said.
“She would be so pleased and proud to know where this profession has gone,” Bj Avery, executive director of the Texas Optometric Association in Austin, said at the dedication. “Mollie wasn’t about gender. She just did what she thought she needed to do.”
“Most of us other than Dr. Vollet probably didn’t know Mollie Armstrong,” Comolli said in accepting the marker placed on the property of the office where he and Ethridge have their practice. “But we know what she did, and it’s an honor to have the marker here.”
Armstrong died in 1964.
Welcoming remarks were offered by Lappe and Laura Terhune, executive director of the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce. Proclamations signed by Brownwood Mayor Bert Massey and state Rep. Jim Keffer were presented, and congratulatory remarks were read by Lappe and Keffer representative Scott Bailey.
Vollet read the marker’s inscription, and the ceremony closed with the entire audience asked to sing “The Old Gray Mare,” theme song of Brownwood’s “Old Gray Mare Band,” the official representative of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce in the first half of the 20th century.
That community band was organized in the 1920s by Armstrong’s son, R. Wright Armstrong.