By LISA EASTMAN
Contributor to Reflector-Chronicle
Ralph Reese has been keeping watches in Abilene running for over 40 years, and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down now.
Reese went to Elgin Watchmaking school on the GI bill in 1957, after getting out of the service. He started out in Salina in 1959 through the early 1960’s, with a government contract with Schilling Air Force Base.
Reese says, “Back then there was 17 places that you could leave a watch to get it fixed. Today, there ain’t none, I don’t think. Back in the 50s, they didn’t have quartz watches. That’s the stuff you throw away nowadays.”
Reese has a display full of antique pocket watches. “They all work. You couldn’t get anyone in Salina to touch these.”
According to Reese, watchmakers are a dying breed. Reese, also the son of a watchmaker, shares some of the history of the profession. “My dad was a watchmaker and an optometrist both. Years ago, everybody did both. Jewelry stores sold eyeglasses and watchmakers had the title doctor. If you’re an optometrist, you’ve got to have the title. So when you went to school, you had to learn to test eyes and fix watches both.
In 1950, the state of Kansas decided it wasn’t very dignified, I guess. Crazy profession.”
By the time Reese was ready for a career, he chose watchmaking over optometry. “It was simple, you had to go to school a lot longer by then. When my dad went to school it was 6 months. I think it’s 6 years now to be an optometrist. It’s a lot longer to get a license.”
80-year-old Reese laughs and adds, “I was gonna get rich quick.”