Doctor remembered for contributions to Franklin, Southampton’s culture

Published 10:04 am Wednesday, June 3, 2015

When Dr. Ernest B. Gatten Jr. passed away on Sunday, he left behind a legacy of bettering his community and championing the arts.

A decorated war veteran, Gatten, 92, served in the Army Air Corps beginning 1942, flying in 32 European missions, including the liberation of Normandy. After the war, he attended the Chicago College of Optometry.

Dr. Ernest Gatten Jr., center, pictured with his wife, Emily, and their daughter, Caroline, and sons Chuck and Burdette. -- SUBMITTED | JUANITA RICHARDS

Dr. Ernest Gatten Jr., center, pictured with his wife, Emily, and their daughter, Caroline, and sons Chuck and Burdette. — SUBMITTED | JUANITA RICHARDS

Gatten married his wife, Emily in 1947, on the day after he graduated from optometry school. The couple soon moved to Franklin, where he served the community until 1991. He became an accomplished doctor, serving on the Virginia Opticians Board for ten years, and as president of the Virginia Academy of Optometry and the Virginia Optometric Association.

Dr. Gatten’s son, E. Burdette Gatten III, took over the operations of the optometric practice upon his retirement in 1991.

“He truly believed in the value of hard work,” his son Chuck Gatten said. “He wanted us all to know that there were very few obstacles that you couldn’t overcome.”

This dedication to hard work is revealed by Gatten’s extensive resume. In addition to his military and medical achievements, Gatten occupied a plethora of leadership roles in the Franklin-Southampton community. He served as a chairman of the Deacons’ Board of the Franklin Congregational Christian Church; a charter member of the Franklin-Southampton Chamber of Commerce; an original member of the Franklin YMCA Board of Directors; and the Franklin City Public School board. In the 1990s he served as president of the Rawls Museum Arts organization and was heavily involved in the Franklin Lions Club and the Franklin Library Board.

Perhaps his most lasting contribution to the community is the creation of the Chamber of Commerce and the Rawls Museum Arts.

“Dr. Gatten was incredibly civically minded,” said Teresa Beale, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. “He, among others, had the foresight to create the Chamber for our community to help facilitate business development and the development of the community at large.”

The Chamber of Commerce works to enhance the quality of life in Franklin and Southampton by “uniting focused and energized professionals in business through networking, community service and social opportunities,” according to the Chamber’s mission statement.

Gatten helped the Rawls Museum Arts to open a new gallery, which created new storage space, offices and allowed the museum to host a permanent collection.

“His fingerprints are all over that museum,” said Roberta Naranjo, who served on the Rawls Museum Arts Board alongside Gatten. “He really knew how to get the most out of every project he was involved in. When he put a plan together, it usually worked.”

Gatten later turned to art himself, specializing in watercolor painting.

“He started it as a hobby toward his later years,” Chuck Gatten said. “It was a great release for him because it allowed him to be creative. He liked to do ruralscapes to go out into the rural areas and paint barns and farms. His favorite place to paint was an old fishing house we had on the Eastern Shore.”

Chuck suggests that his art had to do with his love of the past.

“He really enjoyed thinking about the past,” Gatten said. “He liked the old-fashioned way of thinking. In fact, I can recall him calling all three of us kids into the living room and us sitting around the radio, listening to Earl Nightingale or ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ [Norman Vincent Peale]. He was a real family man.”