Going Home Again … and Again

Ophthalmologist Henry J. Zeiter of Stockton, California, disproves the theory that you can’t go home again. Born in Serhel in northern Lebanon some 70 years ago, he has not forgotten his homeland. Though he left the country with his family when he was a teenager, he takes a vital interest in Lebanon and has visited many times. Working through CNEWA, he is determined to help his war-damaged country.

With assistance from Issam Bishara, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, Dr. Zeiter is tapping into his vast network of family and friends of Lebanese heritage to fund village redevelopment projects in northern Lebanon, a part of the country he knows well. Waste management will be a priority, he tells his contacts.

A favorite retreat in Serhel for the doctor is St. Michael Maronite Church, where he was baptized and where he attends daily Mass on his frequent visits. When he noticed several years ago that its frescoes had suffered water damage, he and his wife, Carol, turned to CNEWA for help in restoring the church, which Dr. Zeiter called the “pride and joy of the village.” The church, whose interior had been painted by a local artist, Ragi Daniel, resembles a “miniature Sistine Chapel,” reported Dr. Zeiter.

Dr. Zeiter’s associative skills are much in evidence as he describes his journey from Serhel to Stockton in his autobiography, “From Lebanon to California: A Marriage of Two Cultures” (Xlibris Corporation, California’s Yosemite Valley near his home brings back vivid memories of Serhel in the Kadisha Valley where his family had their summer villa. “It was Serhel revisited,” he said, referring to the Sierra Nevada.

The road to Stockton was a circuitous one for Dr. Zeiter, who became a U.S. citizen in 1972. His family first immigrated to Caracas, Venezuela, where they lived for a couple of years before moving on to Canada. There, the doctor-to-be attended the University of Western Ontario Medical School in London, Ontario. An internship at Harper Hospital in nearby Detroit, Michigan, followed, with acceptance at the Eye Residency at Harper and its Kresge Eye Institute.

In January 1961, he married the former Carol Schooff and, unusual for the times, Mrs. Zeitel completed her master’s degree in nursing at Wayne State University a few months later. The couple, long attracted to California – she to escape the harsh Detroit winters, he to leave behind the flat, monotonous landscape – set out with their infant son for Stockton. Dr. Zeitel’s friends and relatives joined in helping the young family get settled and the ophthalmologist establish his practice. Baby John Henry was soon joined by a brother, Philip, and two sisters, Suzanne and Camille.

A recurring theme of “From Lebanon to California” is the importance of family. The journey from Serhel to Caracas to Windsor to Detroit to Stockton was facilitated by scores of aunts, uncles and myriad cousins. A family tree allows the reader to sort out the various kinships, and the many photographs illustrating the book bring the cast of characters to life.

Dr. Zeiter’s practice grew, as he pioneered advances in cataract surgery and treatment of other diseases of the eye. His office expanded, eventually becoming Zeiter Eye, dropping “clinic” from the original name. And if you ever wondered about ophthalmology versus optometry, the doctor explains it very well – in a layperson’s terms.

It was not all work and no play for Dr. Zeiter. Possessed of a brilliant and inquiring mind, the doctor, who retired several years ago, is a voracious reader. Quotations from Homer, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Thomas Gray and Gerard Manley Hopkins are sprinkled throughout his book. Music also plays a major role – Mozart, Brahms, Richard Strauss are favorites, with a preference for the “epic grandeur of Richard Wagner.”

Dr. Zeiter, a true Renaissance man, studied painting, working in both watercolor and oil. Music is a “lifelong passion” and, when time permitted, he studied classical piano. He served as president of the Stockton Symphony Orchestra and helped raise funds for its new auditorium. A bonus for his efforts was being allowed to conduct the orchestra at several concerts. Not, however, before he took a course in conducting at the University of the Pacific Conservatory. He is an amateur in the true sense of the word. Another of his passions is opera – and he has appeared on-stage in small parts with a local opera company.

With such a heavy work schedule as Dr. Zeiter’s, it is no wonder that he enjoys retirement. There are the usual golf and tennis games but also time for travel, the arts – and, of course, family. Several years ago, the couple set up a charitable foundation, which allows them to support various causes. Education is foremost and includes college scholarships as well as training seminarians.

As he relaxes on his lakeside terrace, Dr. Zeiter reminisced, “We ought to be spending our golden years in a sort of active leisure, engaged in intellectual and spiritual growth and in charitable giving helping the less fortunate.”

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