JACKSON, Tenn. – Sept. 4, 2002 – His tools are simple – pliers and a screwdriver. His motto is that of physicians – “do no harm.” And his reason is admirable: he likes holding a piece of history in his hands. But many people who work with Robert Simpson, associate vice president of business affairs at Union, still are unaware that for the past ten years, he has spent his free time tinkering with old clocks.
“My love for fixing old clocks came when I found one at an estate sale back in 1992,” Simpson explains. “It was sitting in the rafters of an old garage, so I took it and asked how much the clock would cost. They said it cost $2. So I bought it and brought it home.”
With previous experience with working on antique furniture, Simpson saw this as a new and interesting challenge.
“I sent off for a book on how to prepare clocks and just started learning,” he admits. “Eventually I found all the missing parts to the clock, put it back together and had it running. That was a great triumph.”
The clock that Simpson found at the estate sale for $2 cost only $25 in repair, and now the clock is probably worth anywhere from $800-$1,000. He discovered that the clock was made in the Boston area around the year 1840, in the midst of the first wave of the American Industrial Revolution. And that just makes clock collecting and fixing all the more fascinating to him.
“It’s a real treat to be able to find something like that not working and restore it to working condition,” says Simpson.
After his first success, Simpson began rummaging through more estate sales to find more clocks. Eventually, he accumulated more than a dozen that he has fixed for himself in addition to helping fix clocks for his friends and coworkers.
“It seems that there aren’t many people around anymore that repair antique clocks,” Simpson says. “People seek out those who can because they’re a rarity.”
Simpson’s list of clients includes Union’s minister to the university Todd Brady and former president of the university, Hyran Barefoot. And although he calls them clients, he never charges for repair.
“I’ve never really set out to do it for profit – it’s more like an accommodation for friends and relatives,” Simpson says. “It seems that everyone I know has some broken old clock. That’s been enough to keep me busy.”
He has also moved on to fix music boxes and barometers, which according to him, operate in the same way and are thus related in structure. His collection of antiques has spread on to fishing reels and other hunting memorabilia which now decorate the shelves in his office.
“I like having that connection with the past,” Simpson explains with a smile, that fact is proven by the more than three dozen clocks that are around his house.
This interest in fixing and restoring old things has been passed down to his three sons – Rob, Wilson and John.
“They have an interest in it too, I think,” says Simpson. “I’d like to train them some more. My oldest one helps me on occasion with certain things, and I’d like for them to learn how to do it so that they have a skill to fall back on in the future, just in case they need it.”
He also hopes that his sons will grow in appreciation for the past. His love of history is what drove him to start this hobby in the first place, and it still keeps him going today.
“The biggest attraction for me is the fact that I can take something a hundred years old and fix it and it can still be useful today,” he explains. “It fascinates me to think that something that was made that long ago has just as much utility today as the day it was made. There are not many things you see today that are that well made.”
“Although I can never really go back it’s just neat to be able to hold a piece of the past in your hands and wonder where it’s been and who owned it. It’s amazing.”
By Tracie Holden, Class of 2004
Sara B. Horn,