$20 Million Gift to Benefit the Eyes of Texas
Austin’s Wong family helps launch an eye
By Avrel Seale
On a summer day in 1939, the first Chinese-American was born in Austin, Texas: Mitchel Wong. Little did anyone suspect that the Wongs, who had been grocers for generations, would raise a son who would build one of Austin’s most successful medical practices and, with his own family, make one of the largest gifts in the history of the university in whose shadow their grocery store sat.
UT announced in early October that Mitchel and his family had pledged more than $20 million to fund the Mitchel and Shannon Wong Eye Institute at UT’s Dell Medical School, named for the father and son ophthalmologists.
“All the right things came together in our lives so that we could contribute. It’s really a family gift,” says Mitchel.
Even before this historic gift, the Wongs had made a deep impact on Central Texas health care. In 1969, Mitchel founded Austin Eye, now a five-doctor, 35-employee ophthalmology practice with two locations.
“This is one small way
Mitchel and Rose Wong have four sons, all in Austin, two of whom followed their father into ophthalmology. Shannon co-owns Austin Eye with Mitchel, and Shawn practices at Eyes of Texas Laser Center. Michael is the managing principal and general counsel at AIM Real Estate Group, and Patrick, MAr ’92, owns an architectural photography studio. Four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren round out the family.
Mitchel is the first to point out that ophthalmology is not typically among the early departments of medical schools, so this stands as further evidence that Dell Med does not intend to be traditional. And vision is increasingly important in an aging population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of blind and visually impaired people in America could double by 2030.
“The Wongs’ story is Austin’s story. We’re honored that they’ll build part of their legacy on Dell Med’s campus,” says Dean Clay Johnston. “The Eye Institute will contribute much to our school and the way we train physicians. But it’s also a fabulous metaphor for the health care transformation we’re trying to help accelerate in Austin — it’s helping us all to see more clearly what the world looks like and how we can help make it better.”
Shannon Wong says, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave a legacy for future generations. It helps everybody. It helps the community. It helps our immediate family because it sets an example.
“God knows what my kids are going to do with their lives, but it will impact them, and it helps us pay it forward. We can help shape the next generation of doctors, of ophthalmologists.”
“I think that will be a lot of fun,” he adds. “You can’t take it with you. In the long run, this is a great way to go out with a bang.”
This family’s multigenerational journey from China to Austin shows the blend of work ethic and risk-taking that has made them successful. Mitchel’s grandparents left famine-plagued southern China to help build the transcontinental railroad in Mexico. When Gen. John J. Pershing led the U.S. Army into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, Mitchel’s grandfather found work as a baker for the American soldiers and in 1917 followed them all the way up to San Antonio, where he resettled.
Perhaps revealing a congenital restlessness that eventually passed to Mitchel, Mitchel’s father, Fred, became the only child to leave San Antonio, settling in Austin.
Mitchel started working at the family grocery at age 6. “All of my basic lessons are from things that happened in that store. I was helping my dad around the store, and I asked him to tell me what to do, and he sternly said, ‘Don’t ask me what to do! Look for something that needs doing and do it!’ That is a small lesson, but you don’t have to tell me what to do. I’ll look for something. It gave me initiative to think for myself.”
And he certainly did. Given the choice to join his father in the grocery business or “try school,” Mitchel, who had spent his high school summers working 70 hours a week, chuckles, “I thought for about five seconds and said, ‘I think I’ll try school.’”
He enrolled at UT in zoology and earned his BA in three years, graduating in 1960, then headed to Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine to become a physician. His choice of ophthalmology came after a professor met him in the hallway and asked if he wanted to assist him with an eye operation.
“I kind of liked what I saw,” he remembers. “It’s very precise, very small, very clean, and you can usually get results quickly.” Vision’s huge impact on quality of life also appealed to him.
The University of Texas enabled him to start his career, but it was also during his Longhorn days that he made his most important discovery, his future wife. Rose was born in China and left her family at 16, crossing the Pacific on a freighter with a Catholic scholarship to study nursing. She was studying in Belton and visiting Austin when they met.
For Shannon, seeing his father happy in his career made following in his footsteps a natural choice. With an undergraduate degree from Rice, Shannon also graduated from Baylor College of Medicine.
“The University of Texas is a Tier 1 university,” Mitchel says. “Dell Medical School is going to be one of the best medical schools in the nation because of its location in Austin and its association with The University of Texas.”
Shannon adds, “The result of this gift will be viral. We’ll be able to touch the lives of doctors in training and ophthalmologists who will go on to touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. This is one small way of expanding our imprint on the world.”
Get the latest news about Dell Medical School at dellmedschool.utexas.edu.
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