Feb. 7, 2013
Aaron Wilmes is a true Lawrence native. A Lawrence High School graduate and a former baseball player at the University of Kansas, he chose to stay in his hometown after college to raise a family and build his professional career.
After playing for two years at Johnson County Community College, Wilmes put together a solid career as a first baseman for the Jayhawks under former coach Bobby Randall. He was a part of two regular-season winning records and was a consistent contributor during his junior and senior seasons.
Wilmes earned his optometry license after graduating from the University of Kansas in 1997 and currently runs the Lawrence Optometric Center near the corner of 9th Street and Iowa--within walking distance of the main KU campus. His career has given him especially unique opportunities to give back to his patients, highlighted by an Africa mission trip in 2006 with an organization currently known as `Kansas To Kenya'.
He and his wife now have three young sons, with the oldest gearing up for his first season of tee ball this spring. Kansas Athletics was fortunate to have an opportunity to catch up with Wilmes recently, reflect on his college days and see where his journey has taken him since his days representing the University of Kansas.
What was it like for you to grow up in Lawrence?
"I wasn't really a huge KU fan like I am now. Yeah, I went to Lawrence High and every day I would look up the hill and see all of the buildings and dorms up there. I was more centered on what was happening in high school. I was so involved in athletics and I really didn't give much thought about what I was going to do in college until probably even my senior year. But, KU was there. I never missed a basketball game and my friends and I always got together to watch the games at my house or another house or whatever. I wouldn't say I was a huge fan like I am now. I was the average Jayhawk fan because my friends were fans."
How did your baseball career progress before college?
"I was a third baseman in high school. I didn't start playing first base until my senior year. I played on a pretty darn good team to be honest. We had seven guys who played Division I baseball on our team. A lot of them went to KU, K-State or Wichita State. I was also a pretty good football player. I probably could have gone on to be a lineman in college as well. I didn't want to because I had loved baseball from probably the time I was in sixth or seventh grade. Any free time that I had in the summer, I was always hitting the ball or dragging my friends out to play a pick-up game in the park behind our house. I just loved the game. I always wanted to play and I was always trying to get people together to hit or throw batting practice or whatever. It's always been a passion of mine."
Talk about your opportunity to play baseball collegiately at KU.
"I kind of had to work for everything that I had (in baseball). I wasn't recruited by any four-year schools out of high school, so I went on to play at Johnson County (Community College). I had a pretty good career there and I was fortunate enough to be recruited by (former coach) Dave Bingham and came to play at KU. I never got to play for Dave Bingham because he resigned from the program during the summer before I came in, so I played for Bobby Randall during his first two years."
Do you have any particular memories from your college playing days that stick out to you?
"My memories have to do with being around all the guys on the team. It is kind of like your own clique or fraternity, or however you'd describe that. You're with them all the time. You live with them, you eat lunch and dinner with them, you travel with them. You're with them all the time and you become such close friends; that's what I recall. I never really had best friends on the team. I had a lot of really good acquaintances that I enjoyed hanging out with and I got along great with them. It was those types of things--the camaraderie from being around those guys and spending the majority of your college career looking at the same people. You develop some relationships and you don't realize it at the time, but they're pretty important to you as you get older looking back. "
Describe your experience travelling to Kenya for a medical mission trip in 2006.
"It's a program that's run by a bunch of doctors here in Lawrence who go over there every summer just to provide care to a very run-down, in-need area. It was basically a lot of orphanages that we provided care to for kids whose parents died of AIDS. We went out to provide care for the Maasai people out in the bush. If you can think of the places where all the animals are, we set up camp out there and spent the day seeing people. They would walk for miles to get care, so it's not just eye-related. There was an internal medicine doctor, there were nurses and there were pharmacists that went, so it was a comprehensive clinic. I was there for two weeks, and it was about seven (consecutive) days that we provided care."
How did you become interested in optometry and how has your medical career progressed since college?
"When I was at KU, I changed my major many times. I started out as an athletic training/physical therapy major, and then I decided that I didn't know if that's what I wanted to do. That happened at about the same time that a very close friend of mine got hurt pretty badly in summer ball. He actually lost his vision because of this accident he was in. Every Tuesday morning, his parents let me take him to his eye doctor to get rehab, treatment or whatever. At that point, I decided that maybe I wanted to get away from the athletic training thing and maybe be an eye doctor. That's how I started doing this. One thing led to another and now I'm in a profession that will hopefully someday help him get his vision back. He's a pretty important guy to me. We've been close friends and I look at his family like my mom and dad, too."
What is your family like?
"My wife is a Clemson graduate and she's a native of the Charleston, S.C., area. We got married in 2005. We have three boys--the oldest one is named Braden and he's a five years old. Then I've got Reece who is three and we have a 15-month-old named Zachary. It's going to get exciting in my house over the next few years."
Have you maintained a relationship with the baseball program since your college years?
"I live here in Lawrence, so I go to a number of games each year. I try to get to at least one and usually it's more than that. I'm a member of the Diamond Club, the K-Club and I do like to take part when I can. It's harder now that I've got a professional career as an optometrist, but also with family life. There are a number of alumni activities that I try to get involved in. Would I like to do more? Yes, but I try to do as much as I can being an alumnus and a fan."