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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Fred Schroeder is having the time of his life

Fred Schroeder repairs antique pendulum clocks like this one, which dates from the mid-1800s. In the background is his closet-sized workshop.

Fred Schroeder loves the tick-tock of old-fashioned clocks.

“It’s the sound of them,” he said. “It’s very reassuring, a relaxing, calming kind of sound.”

Schroeder, who was dean of students for 13 of his 34 years at Carolina, is a horologist, that is, a clock and watch enthusiast. Retired since 1997, he has even more time on his hands to spend on his hobby. He doesn’t have a shop – just a closet neatly organized with tools and spare parts in his Carol Woods cottage. He doesn’t advertise. But he always has four or five clocks sitting around, waiting to be worked on. Finding him through word of mouth, people whose clocks have taken a licking and not kept ticking come to him for help.

One such customer was Bill Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, whose office is in the Love House on Franklin Street. Built in 1886 by James Lee Love, an assistant professor of mathematics, the Love House was acquired by the University and renovated and expanded in 2006-07.

After the acquisition, Charles and Mary Love decided to donate the family’s stately grandfather clock – given to James Love by the Harvard Summer School in 1909– to the University and so return it to the home where it had kept time so faithfully. With its polished wood case and disk of hand-painted phases of the moon, the clock was beautiful, but it didn’t work.

So Ferris called Fred Schroeder, who had worked before on other antique clocks at the University, including ones at the Morehead Foundation and in the chancellor’s office.

Schroeder took the clock mechanism home, disassembled it, carefully cleaned and polished its parts and reassembled it. Then he returned it to the Love House, put the mechanism back in the wooden case and wound it up.

“It should run another 100 years, easily, with no major repair,” he assured Ferris at the time. We know this because Ferris, a professional documentarian, filmed Schroeder as he put the clock back together in May 2016 and interviewed Schroeder as he worked.

“Now, you obviously have to wind it every week,” Schroeder reminded Ferris. “I have a number of stories about people who didn’t quite understand that when I returned their clock to them.”

Turning back time

Schroeder picked up his first clock in the 1960s at a Maine antiques store – “it was more of a junk pavilion” – for $3. The old mantle clock wasn’t working, but he was sure he could fix it. And he did, although it might have killed him.

Schroeder made the rookie mistake of taking apart the clockwork mechanism without previously restraining the

This clock in for repair has wooden gears.

tightly wound springs inside with a C-clamp. Without this step, “when you take the plate off, it explodes,” he explained.

“And it exploded enough to embed one of the wheels into a 2-by-4 right behind me.”

He found all the parts, put them together again and got the clock to work. He enjoyed the work so much that he began to repair clocks for his friends. Then he inherited the chiming clock in his hallway, a tall English bell-strike model built in 1762 by Gawen Brown of Boston. With patience and skill, he brought it back to life.

Some 60 years later, he’s still at it.

“There’s a certain joy in being able to get one of those back in good operating condition, along the lines of what the maker might have intended. Part of the joy of doing this kind of stuff is being able to return something like that into a living, breathing, striking part of their life,” he said.

“And I’ll show you another joy.” Schroeder picked up the face of a Seth Thomas clock and flipped it over to show the back. There previous repairmen have written their names and dates of the servicing, including S.W. Clark in 1893.

“You come across things like that,” he said. “It’s like restoring old cars or antique furniture, except you’ve got motion, you’ve got the history of time all caught up in this thing.”

Time running out?

Love family clock at Center for Study of the American South.

Schroeder is a treasure trove of trivia about clocks. For example, did you know that the term “grandfather clock” came from an 1876 American song called My Grandfather’s Clock? Or that the oldest working clock in the world is the Salisbury Cathedral clock, dating to 1386? Or that traveling clock salesmen in America often left clocks in the home of the mayor, relying on envy to fuel orders from the rest of the town?

A proud member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors and subscriber to an international listserv of clock enthusiasts, Schroeder has friends all over the world who share his passion for clocks. Closer to home, he said, former UNC system President C.D. Spangler and Arthur Finn, a retired doctor and professor emeritus of the School of Medicine, are also ardent horologists.

There’s a certain romanticism associated with these old clocks. They can be grandfathers. They have faces and hands. Their steady tick-tock sounds so much like a heartbeat that we call the human heart a ticker.

But will smartphones, digital clocks and quartz watches eventually spell the end of old-fashioned wind-up pendulum clocks?

“In 100 years, will they still be around?” Schroeder asked. “I wish I had the answer to that. It will depend on taste, whether people continue to value the provenance, the sense of intergenerational contact.”

If the clocks do survive, it will be because people who love working on them as much as Schroeder will be around to fix them. He chuckled. “There will be nuts like me for a while who enjoy it,” he said. “But it will be hard to make a living on it.”