When Dr. Robert Fait attended St. Mary’s High School (now Catholic Central High School in Burlington) he had high hopes of following in his grandfather’s footsteps after graduation.
“My grandpa worked for the Sioux Line Railroad and ended up in Silver Lake. My dad (Lawrence) was an optometrist and I went with grandpa to the railroad,” he said. “Everything went on the railroad: mail, food, passengers and gasoline. Trucks didn’t start until ’54, when the interstate started. I watched the trains come in — Silver Lake was a big metropolis that got about 20 railroad cars each day. I wanted to be a railroad engineer and it is still embedded in my fiber.”
When Fait graduated in 1963, he opted to go to college, and there was an added incentive to do so since those who went to college were unlikely to be drafted into the Vietnam War. While he still had the infatuation with the railroad, he began looking more at his father’s occupation and put the railroad desire to the side.
Fait graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from UW-Madison in just two years by taking 21 credits a semester and going to summer school. He graduated with his doctorate from the Illinois College of Optometry in just three years.
“For one year, I was the youngest optometrist in the United States,” he said. “I credit earning my doctorate in five years, at the age of 21, to the ‘steel hand’ of the nuns at St. Mary’s High School and their high academic expectations. The nuns gave me so much homework that it gave me a great foundation — it also gave me the fortuitousness of being able to stick with my work, and not only have four eye clinics but my business as the largest independent distributor of ophthalmic drugs.
Fait sits on the board of trustees at the Illinois College of Optometry. He is the founding partner of Pentech and Genix Pharmaceuticals (they do research and produce new drugs) and is the founder and owner of WVA, the largest independent wholesale pharmaceutical distributor of the eye-care industry. He employs 425 individuals in multiple locations.
After starting in the basement of his home, Fait moved the distribution business to the old Firestone Bicycle Shop; then took over the former Bigelow’s Appliance building. He grew out of those locations and then built a building on Highway 36, across from St. Charles Cemetery.
At age 75, Fait has no plans for retirement as he says the word is not in his vocabulary.
“I learned that to raise a child from zero to 18 costs about $225,000 and I have 17 grandchildren, and if you multiply that by $225,000, my kids don’t have the capability of providing all that; so I am working for them,” he said.
Not only did Dr. Fait graduate from the now-Catholic Central High School, but so did he and his wife Judy’s four children. Their 17 grandchildren are continuing the family tradition of Catholic education. He also employs children and grandchildren at his business, along with many others he considers as members of his family.
“Most of them have been with us for 20-30 years; we treat them equally and though they are not all the same religion, they have the same moral structure by virtue of the way we treat them,” he said. “We have a lot of single mothers who work in a supervisory capacity and we support them by flexing their schedules to accommodate their children and, in many cases, we employ their children and provide them with extra resources for their education at CCHS. We also recruit CCHS students to work for us and they always do a great job. About 25 percent of them come back to us after they earn their degree.”
Fait’s Catholic values shine in his dedication to those in need. He travels yearly to Ecuador with the Franciscan Missions, where his work encompasses providing medical clinics, churches, schools and housing for the underprivileged. He also funded an orphanage in Ecuador and supports 24 children born with AIDS. He began his missionary work with the Franciscan Mission in Waterford, for many years helping with eye care and other medical supplies.
“I also ask my employees to give to the orphanage each year as a Christmas present to me, rather than giving me a gift, and I match the funds,” he said. “We pay for the children’s education and training to help them become independent citizens.”
When Fait isn’t working, or traveling to Ecuador, he enjoys spending time with his children and their growing families. He volunteers at his parish, Immaculate Conception, and is also an avid downhill skier, taking many trips to Colorado with his family.