Jim Hilgert remembers meeting Dr. Thomas O'Kane in the worst of circumstances. He was 12, playing hockey in the early 1970s along Rice Street on St. Paul's North End when a friend's skate blade sliced his eye.

He was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital where O'Kane, the chief of ophthalmology, surgically removed his left eye.

"He was such a calming guy and really made you feel at ease," said Hilgert, now 51, who was one of O'Kane's 40,000 patients between the 1930s and the 1980s. "You could just tell it was the perfect position for him because he cared so deeply for his patients and wanted to help as many people as he could."

O'Kane died of cancer Dec. 17 at his home of 55 years in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. He was 97.

"He was incredibly sharp right up until the end, living independently and monitoring his stock market investments," said his son, Kelly O'Kane, of St. Paul.

That sharpness is why the Harvard Brain Bank requested and will receive his brain for part of an international study on aging and dementia. "He will live on through this research," Kelly said.

Born in 1914 in Cairo, Ill., O'Kane graduated from the University of Illinois Medical School and came to St. Paul to do his residency at the old Ancker Hospital.

He moved to St. Joseph's after Ancker closed and became the chief of staff in 1964, performing surgeries and general eye care through the mid-1980s. Kelly said his father waived the fees for any members of the clergy.

A sports fan and avid golfer, O'Kane witnessed Babe Ruth's call-the-shot home run in the 1932 World Series and made three holes in one during his lifetime.

In addition to Kelly, O'Kane is survived by daughters Patricia Trombley of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Michele (Mickey) O'Kane of Minneapolis, son Barry O'Kane of St. Paul and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Helen, and his first grandson, Air Force Capt. Thomas J. O'Kane, who was killed in Afghanistan.

Visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday at Willwerscheid Funeral Home, 1167 Grand Av., St. Paul. Visitation and mass are scheduled for Tuesday at 9 a.m. at Lumen Christi Catholic Church, 2055 Bohland Av., St. Paul.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767