Grisamore: At 99, the old clockmaker looks back

egrisamore@macon.comJune 14, 2014 

GrisHamrick

Raymond Hamrick, 99, one of the oldest watchmakers in the United States, recently retired.

JASON VORHEES — jvorhees@macon.com Buy Photo

The clock on Raymond Hamrick’s wall was made in Austria more than 200 years ago.

It needs no atomic clock or satellite signal from outer space to keep time. The heavy pendulum has swung to the rhythm of life for two centuries, across leap years and harvest moons, birthdays, Flag Days and Father’s Days.

Hamrick has now lived almost half as long as the timepiece that ticks above him at John Wesley Villas. He turned 99 on Saturday and celebrated at an all-day Sacred Harp singing held in his honor at the civic center in Roberta.

If Macon can claim a Father Time on this Father’s Day, it would be Raymond Hamrick. Until a few weeks ago, he was still repairing watches at Andersen’s Jewelers downtown. If there is another 99-year-old still working on mechanical clocks and watches anywhere else in the world, I want the scoop on that story.

He keeps time to music, too. Hamrick is a nationally known composer and singer of Sacred Harp music -- historical “shape note” songs and nondenominational religious compositions sung in four-part harmony without instrumental accompaniment.

Hamrick is a longtime Macon treasure. For more than 80 years, he has done his part to keep the trains running on schedule. He has had a role in getting folks to their shift at the plant with punctuality and had a hand in all those June brides and grooms making it to the church on time.

Until old age started whittling him down, the 6-foot-4 Hamrick was as tall as a grandfather clock.

He was born on Flag Day -- June 14, 1915 -- at his family’s home on Montpelier Avenue, across the street from Miller High School. He was a paperboy for the afternoon Macon News.

His family later moved to Napier Avenue. When he graduated from Lanier High in 1932, he took a job as an assistant to Ed Vandigriff, the manager of the Macon City Auditorium.

“He didn’t like to type, so I did his typing,” Hamrick said, laughing. “It was during the Depression, so it wasn’t a matter of doing what you wanted to do but what you could find to do.”

His father, Horace, was killed in an automobile accident on Hamrick’s 21st birthday. The funeral was held on Father’s Day.

George Andersen was a neighbor who opened a jewelry store on Cotton Avenue in 1929, in the building where Golden Bough Bookstore is now located. He moved to the store’s current location at 361 Second St. in 1933.

Andersen offered Hamrick a position as an apprentice in watch repair. Hamrick stayed eight years before a four-year stint as an instrument specialist in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

His technical skills as a watchmaker attracted the attention of military officials, who assigned him to the top secret Norden Bombsight School in Denver. Norden is where they developed the bombsight used for the atomic bomb dropped by the B-29 Enola Gay on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

Mysterious telegram

That ended the war, and Hamrick’s waiting on orders to return home was hastened by a mysterious telegram. He was told to report to the colonel at headquarters.

“He said someone had a Western Union telegram wanting to know when I was coming back,” Hamrick said. “He wanted to know what to tell them. When I said three weeks, he asked: ‘Hamrick, who are you?’ I told him I was just a nobody, ... but I knew some people. “

Hamrick always suspected the telegram was from the office of U.S. Rep. Carl Vinson of Milledgeville, one of the most influential members of Congress on military affairs. Vinson was one of Andersen Jeweler’s customers and sent the telegram at Andersen’s request.

“Mr. Andersen was flooded with work and needed me back,” Hamrick said. “I should have told the colonel that ‘Uncle Carl’ was checking on me and he might have let me come back even sooner.”

He returned as a junior partner and took over ownership when Andersen died in 1963. He kept the name of the store -- and much of the decor -- the same. Customers love stepping back in time, as if they were rewinding an old watch and turning back the hands of the clock the minute they walk through the door. For years, some customers assumed he was Andersen, so he always answered to it.

“I always loved to work with my hands, and to do close, delicate work,” he said. “George (Andersen) used to say when a watchmaker looks inside a watch and sees that balance wheel running, it gave him a sense of pride.”

In the early 1950s, Hamrick became friends with Hugh McGraw of Bremen, a leader in the Sacred Harp singing tradition. He also began corresponding with George Pullen Jackson of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, one of the top scholars of shape-note music.

He became involved in Sacred Harp music at the local and state levels and began to collect books and compose music. He is now considered a leading authority and a legend in the movement. Four years ago, 92 of his compositions were published called “The Georgia Harmony: A Collection of Hymns and Fuging Tunes in the Shape-Note Tradition.”

“Sacred Harp singers are like a big family,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for them to express themselves. And I’m a history buff. This music has its roots all the way back to Shakespeare.”

He is grateful to make it to 99 but doesn’t claim any great secret to his longevity. No long walks, crossword puzzles or tablespoon of apple cider vinegar every day. It’s in his gene pool. His mother lived to be 97. He had a great grandfather make it to 101.

For the old watchmaker, time flies when you’re having fun.

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com

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