Leaving No Stone Unturned, Life-Long Learner Returns to Higher Education Exploring Geology
December 21, 2022
Following a long career as an optometrist, retirement gave 81-year-old Joseph Lavaux the opportunity to pursue one of his lifelong interests: geology. This led him to the University of Northern Colorado, where, this past August, he began studying the subject.
Lavaux considered digging into the science of earth’s physical structure many decades ago, but chose a different path after witnessing his two uncle’s experiences whom he always looked up to.
“One was a geologist and the other was an optometrist,” he said. “The optometrist uncle had a much better family lifestyle, and so I thought, ‘Well, that’s got to be for me.’ My other uncle was always traveling out in the field and away from home. I wanted to raise a family and live in a community.”
Seeing the two different lifestyles led Lavaux to study optometry at Indiana University, where he received his degree in 1965. He moved to Colorado after graduation and started a reliable career in optometry that allowed him to be there for his family, including his seven grandchildren. He had offices in Fort Collins and in Estes Park.
Pursing optometry also gave him the opportunity to travel the world and learn about different types of people and cultures.
For 20 years, Lavaux acted as a volunteer and a short-term contract optometrist traveling across the globe with non-profit organizations such as the Rotary Club of Estes Park and Colorado V.O.S.H. He was inspired to get involved in 1980 after learning about a doctor from Kansas who volunteered his services in Latin America.
From there, Lavaux spent years traveling the world to volunteer his services, visiting the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. He would often stay with local host families and give out prescription glasses to people who needed them. According to Lavaux, between 3,000 and 5,000 people would come through within a week requesting prescription glasses.
Lavaux volunteers his services at a free eyecare project in the Dominican Republic in 1983.
“We didn't get paid for it, but we had a lot of gratification and helped a lot of people,” he said. “We made a lot of good friends through that, too. One of the fellas that I worked with in Panama sent me a birthday greeting recently. We had a wonderful time.”
Lavaux eventually left his practice in Fort Collins to focus solely on his practice in Estes Park before deciding to retire in 2001 due to burnout at the age of 60.
“A single doctor in an office from a small town, you’re always hit up for questions and have to leave home for emergencies and everything like that,” Lavaux said.
Lavaux performs an eye exam on a child at the St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, Montana in 2003.
A year later, he received a request to work with and provide optometry services to the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana. While he had taken a cultural anthropology course in college and learned a bit about Native Americans, most of his knowledge and perceptions of them came from what he saw in film and on television.
He embraced the opportunity to work with them and learn about their culture. He spent a year there providing eye care while his wife, Diane, ran the office.
“And then we thought, ‘Well, this is pretty nice. We get to find out about different places and don’t have to commit long term.’ The income you generate from that pays for you being there,” Lavaux said.
He traveled for many years performing similar, short-term contracts. He also worked with the Air Force in Tucson, Arizona, with Veterans Affairs in Walla Walla, Washington, and even with a university in New Zealand.
Along with giving him the opportunity to immerse himself in new cultures and travel the world, his work as an optometrist also allowed him and his wife to explore their interest in dancing.
“We started dancing in high school. We met dancing,” Lavaux said.
Lavaux and his wife, Diane, dance together in Boulder in October 2022.
Lavaux, Diane, and Tito Puente Jr. participate in a salsa benefit for tornado relief in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
“We were in Costa Rica doing a project there and one of the interpreters said, ‘You’ve done a lot for us. What can we do for you?’ My wife said, ‘Why don’t you teach us how to dance?’ So, they started to teach us salsa. We learned some basic steps and she said, ‘There’s a big dance coming up.’ So, we went to this big dance and we’re sitting there just ready to get up on the dance floor, then all of a sudden these Costa Ricans got on the dance floor and they were doing things I had never seen before and we just sat there the whole night saying, ‘We got to learn this better.’ So, we started taking lessons and we go dancing about every week in Boulder.”
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, halting group dancing. This gave Lavaux the opportunity to return to the interest he had before all of the traveling and volunteering and that’s when he began watching educational YouTube videos on geology.
“I thought, ‘I have to learn more. There’s so much out there that I don’t know,’” Lavaux said.
He took an introductory-level geology course online, but was eager to gain in-person lab and field experience.
“I didn’t have any site visits. So, I got just a little bit of knowledge and I thought, ‘Well, maybe this spring, I’ll look into doing something at one of these colleges around here.’ UNC was closest and they offered an auditing program,” Lavaux said.
UNC’s auditing program allows students to take courses in which they are not required to complete assignments or exams, but they are expected to attend class. Credit is not awarded for these courses. People 65 years of age and older can take courses in the auditing program free of tuition charges.
Lavaux found that UNC’s administration and staff were very welcoming and helped him adjust to modern academic life.
“I didn’t even know how to put my homework on Canvas (an online course management system), so I went over to the office and they helped me put an app on my phone that I had no idea was available and they showed me how to submit my homework,” Lavaux said. “Back in my day, we didn’t have anything like that. It was all hard copy and all of our math was done with a slide ruler. We had no computers.”
Since Lavaux has adjusted to the new higher education practices, his experience has been rock solid. He’s created relationships with his professors and classmates, something his past experiences helped with.
“In practice, you have to know how to communicate and read people. You work with all ages. And then, with dancing, we’re the oldest couple there. A lot of the college kids come over and we just dance and have fun," Lavaux said.
Now, he's looking forward to learning more about the geological formations he's seen across Colorado and the world.
“We have a house in the mountains and we have rocks all around us where they’ve carved out roads and you can see the different rock layers and all,” Lavaux said. “I look at them and I think, ‘I wonder what kind of rock that is and how did it get here?’ When you’re traveling, you see formations and you think, ‘Wow, look at that. How did that happen?’ So, I’d just like to learn more about my area.”
As a life-long learner, Lavaux encourages people to take advantage of opportunities to explore and be exposed to different cultures around the world.
“With optometry, I was able to go all around to different places in the world and meet different people of different cultures around the United States,” he said. “You have to use what you have and take advantage of things that are out there. You can’t just sit back. You got to go out and pursue things.”
Lavaux explores the city of Auckland, New Zealand with his wife, Diane, before going to teach at the University of Auckland School of Optometry and Vision Science.
Lavaux and his coworkers in his Navajo hospital team hike to the summit of Mt. Humphrey in Arizona.
Lavaux and his wife, Diane, ride on horseback in Panama.
Lavaux hikes a mountain in Panama.
– written by Alani Casiano, a senior English major