Time of his life

John Linahan relaxes at his clock repair work area.  ((Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

John Linahan relaxes at his clock repair work area. ((Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

Manistee horologist continues intricate work he enjoys so much

MANISTEE — Two time-telling notes distinguish John Linahan for being the master musician he is – tick-tock.

Those two notes are music to his ears, alright. They represent the perfect tone and harmony – the perfect concerto, if you will – that he works so feverishly to achieve.

In actuality, the 89-year-old Manistee man is a horologist, a maker of clocks and watches.

But with the smooth, steady hand of a maestro – as one who seeks rhythm and synchronization of all moving parts – Linahan conducts his great work with meticulous precision, until, in the end, he hears music to his ears – tick, tock.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the soft-talking clock maker finds inspiration in listening to the great classics of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin and more.

“I always have the music playing whenever I’m working on my clocks,” he said, smiling. “It relaxes me. I have a nice collection of old records that I still play – classical, pop, show tunes – you know, all the good stuff.”

AN INSIDE LOOK

Born in 1926 in New Jersey, Linahan and his family lived in Philadelphia before his parents moved to Michigan when he was in third grade.

John Linahan show the interior of his 1790 grandfather clock. The Manistee man became interested in clocks as a child.  (Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

John Linahan show the interior of his 1790 grandfather clock. The Manistee man became interested in clocks as a child. (Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

Inquisitive by nature, the young Linahan delighted in figuring out how things worked, especially clocks – the bigger, the better.

“When I was just a boy, I remember going over to my aunt’s house,” he said. “One day they all went outside, which gave me the opportunity to stay inside and crawl inside her giant grandfather’s clock.

“Really, I opened the door and just crawled inside, and I looked at all the neat, moving parts. It was quite an experience.”

And why wouldn’t a boy explore the inside a grandfather clock? It can be a wooden treasure of brass and steel gears, weights, wheels, whistles, chimes, bells, springs, plates, pinions, screws, anchors and so much more.

“They didn’t catch me, though, because when I heard them coming back in, I managed to get out,” Linahan said, cracking the grin of an incorrigible, cookie-stealing boy. “No one was any wiser for what I had done. But I got a chance to look at that thing from the inside, and I loved it.

“I guess you could say I’ve always been interested in clocks, even back then.”

OTHER INTERESTS

Other things interested him in his youth, too, including the magic and adventure of flight.

“I was a model airplane nut when I was a kid,” he said. “Our planes were made of wood and had gas-powered engines, but the only problem was you had no way to control them – no controls, all risk. Once you got them started, and tossed them in the air, they just took off and flew to wherever they wanted to, until they fell back to Earth on their own.”

Linahan grew up and attended schools in the Detroit area, eventually graduating from the University of Detroit in 1948 with a degree in English.

He worked primarily as a salesperson for the phone company for 41 years, retiring in 1989.

But before he retired, he decided to pursue his childhood interest in finding out how clocks work, and how to clean and repair them.

“I learned all about clock cleaning and repair from a fella with the Northville Watch and Clock Shop,” Linahan said. “He taught me everything. He encouraged me. He became a good friend. I still keep in touch with him.

“I just get a lot of joy and satisfaction out of being able to repair an old clock, especially a big one like a grandfather.

Being careful not to spill them, John Linahan searches for the right brass part from a box of extremely small clock parts.  (Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

Being careful not to spill them, John Linahan searches for the right brass part from a box of extremely small clock parts. (Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

“But I have to say, it causes a lot of disappointment – even heartbreak – when I can’t do the job, when I can’t fix it,” he said. “The work can be so precise, and time-consuming, but once you get done and everything is working, it’s like you’ve won something – I’ve won.”

George Wagoner had been a neighbor of Linahan’s for many years, and still sits down to have breakfast with him from time to time at a local restaurant.

“He’s just a real, real good guy,” Wagoner said. “He’s very smart, and talented. I’ve seen a lot of his clocks, and seen how he goes about repairing them, and that’s always amazed me. He’s interesting. He’s just a joy to talk to, and be around.”

THE INNER WORKINGS

Many of the doughnut-shaped brass parts Linahan uses to repair clocks can be hard to see, at first glance. Some are nearly as small as lead in a pencil.

If clock cleaning and repair is about anything, he said, it’s about having patience and a steady hand.

Over the years Linahan has cleaned and repaired an untold number of clocks – large and small – and he has more than 100 of them in his personal collection, including a few he built himself, and one that was built in England in 1790.

“It still works, and is operated by a single weight, versus three weights that were commonly used in later clocks,” he said. “That clock has just one hand on it – an hour hand – because back then minute hands and second hands were not yet used.

“Knowing the exact time just wasn’t as important back then, as it is now with most people. Not many people owned them back then, anyway.”

Linahan has been a member of National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC) since about 1980, and he still goes to club chapter meetings of the NAWCC down state, every other month. He’s also served as a “mart chairman” for two decades, meaning he organized and watched over the club’s various sales/trade shows, including one held at a national convention in Grand Rapids a few years ago.

FAMOUS CLOCKMAKERS

Several years ago Linahan toyed with the notion of writing a book that would feature the clockmakers of Michigan, including Nels Johnson, of Manistee.

“I didn’t know there were about 50, or more,” he said. “That was going to be quite a book to research and write.”

While he didn’t write his book – at least not yet – he did write a 12-page feature story 10 years ago on Nels Johnson, of Manistee fame, for the NAWCC national magazine.

Johnson was a 19th century and early-20th century clockmaker who manufactured the Century tower clocks – massive and intricate time pieces that were installed in church steeples, court houses and other buildings – which he boasted would last 100 years. And he was right.

Some of Johnson’s tower clocks are still located in the Michigan communities of Manistee (First Congregational Church, Manistee County Historical Museum, another with a private resident and the Lutheran church in Arcadia), Big Rapids, St. Joseph, Lansing, Muskegon, Detroit and Holland, as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis, Milwaukee.

John Linahan, 89, of Manistee, stands next to his prized 1790 grandfather clock, one of more than 100 clocks in his collection. The clock was made in England. (Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

John Linahan, 89, of Manistee, stands next to his prized 1790 grandfather clock, one of more than 100 clocks in his collection. The clock was made in England. (Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

“We came to Manistee to do research on Nels,” Linahan said. “Nels was very important to clock making, especially to the Manistee area. His clocks are located all over, there’s a monster one down in the Grand Rapids Museum.

“Nels always had a lot bigger competition – there were a lot of clock companies back then – but everyone knew that a clock made by Nels Johnson was going to be a good one, and was going to last a long time.”

A TWIST OF FATE

It was while Linahan and his wife, Jeannette, were in Manistee that fate intervened in a blustery way.

“When we got here, we got stuck in a snowstorm,” he said. “ We were told that it was so bad back in Detroit, that we shouldn’t go back for a few days. We were told we couldn’t go back, even if we wanted to.

“So, we stayed here (in Manistee) for a week, or so. And while we were here, we looked around, and decided we really liked the place. We thought it might be nice to move here, to retire here. So, that’s what we did.”

Linahan and Jeannette moved to Manistee “about” 15 years ago, tracking that time frame with the single hour hand of a two-century-old clock, versus a modern day time piece that has hour, minute, second and even split-second hands.

But time, Linahan said, just isn’t that important when compared to what matters most – life, love, marriage, family, death and more.

“She’s resting right over there,” Linahan said softly of his wife of his wife as he pointed out the window and toward a cemetery not far away. “I’ll join her there, some day.

“We were married 67 years – good life, good life. We didn’t always have a lot of money, but we did have nine kids. Boy, did we have a family.”

And then, with steady hands and keen eyes – and of course, with his beloved classical music playing in the background – Linahan goes back to repairing clocks.

And as he does, music fills his ears, and spirit – tick, tock, tick, tock.

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Posted by David L. Barber

David L. Barber is the retired editor of the Manistee News Advocate. He contributes columns weekly for the News Advocate. You can contact him at dlbarber1006@gmail.com.

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