It's about time; iconic East Falls clock tower repaired after months of motionless hands
December 3, 2012By Matthew Grady for NewsWorks
It sends a message that not everything's broken.
- Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corporation
Time is once again on the side of kids, residents, and certain community news editors with the completion of restoration work on Thomas Mifflin Elementary School's clock.
As lamented by NewsWorks editor Brian Hickey in September, the Mifflin School's clock had malfunctioned, resulting in a clock that was accurate only twice a day, with neither moment occurring when said editor was relaxing on the back deck of his East Falls home and desirous of an accurate marker of the passing hours.
Hickey was miffed by the broken clock, especially since he often used it as a BBQ timer, so he wrote about it in a NewsWorks essay.
Reaction appeared to be nominal, and perhaps in spite of the clock's inert hands, time slowly passed. Then, one day – indeed, one fateful day – the hands were gone. Vamoose. Vanished sans fuss or fanfare!
Vandals, was it? A clock robber perhaps, stealing time? Or maybe Father Time himself descended from on high, freeing his minions from their servitude as sentinels of public promptness.
In truth, all the while there was a man lurking in the shadows, waiting for precisely the right moment to strike.
Bringing the clock back to life
"Are you the guy who wrote the story?" asked Bob Desrochers when reached by NewsWorks. Desrochers, 66, is a well-regarded clock and watch repairer who lives in Lititz, Pa. who was tasked with repairing Mifflin's timepiece.
This reporter demurred, but Desrochers indicated that Hickey's essay triggered the recent restoration.
Desrochers first go-round at Mifflin occurred about seven years ago, when he installed new hands and glass. He said it ran well for a number of years, but as with any mechanical device, regular maintenance is essential, so he called and called and called school administrators about the clock's well-being.
For several years, he said, no one wanted to talk about the clock. That changed when a certain NewsWorks editor got a little wound up about it.
With the go-ahead from the school district and the help of a steeplejack – a craftsperson skilled at high-level maintenance – Desrochers removed the hands and spent about a week repairing and rebuilding the innards of the clock.
With the parts in his possession, Desrochers discovered that several of the clock's universal joints had cracked, split from years of stress.
He corrected this, and with the help of his trusty steeplejack colleagues, Desrochers returned to East Falls a few weeks after first removing the mechanism and brought the clock back to life.
"I assume it's still running," he said.
$4,500 in repairs
Desrochers is the go-to guy for a number of municipal timepieces in the city – he keeps City Hall's clock ticking – but says that among the many faces with which he is familiar, Mifflin's clock and the architecture and history of the school itself stand out.
"The school was built at a time when money was still being spent," he said of Mifflin.
Philadelphia School District spokesman Fernando Gallard reported that approximately $4,500 was spent on the repairs, with the cost being shared by the school district and two private companies. While he did not identify either business, he praised their generosity, noting that it was a prime example of businesses and communities working together toward a common goal.
George Matysik, co-chair of the Friends of Mifflin School committee, said that the restored clock was representative of another common goal: The focal point of a community rallying around its school.
For Desrochers, the role of public clocks is more important now than ever, observing that fewer people are wearing watches. It's a behavioral observation that keeps his practice busy and inspires the precision of his work.
"I'm a stickler for how things ought to be done," he said. "I really want it right."
'It sends a message that not everything's broken'
And that desire to do it right appears to be appreciated.
"I'm happy to hear that another NewsWorks story has affected positive change in Northwest Philly," said Hickey. "But, this isn't about me or my desire to barbecue assorted meats properly. This is a victory for everyone who values punctuality."
Mifflin Principal Leslie Mason said that she's "very happy" with the repair, noting the clock's symbolic representation of school and community.
Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corporation, echoed Mason's sentiments, noting that schools are a very visual symbol of a community and its investment in public education.
"It sends a message that not everything's broken," Snyder observed.
Gallard was unsure of the exact circumstances of his notification about Mifflin's malfunctioning clock, but when asked, believed that Hickey's essay was the likely tipping point.
Referencing the sagging finances of the school district, Gallard said it was difficult for the district to complete all the repairs it hopes to, but said that every now and again, especially with the additional support of business and community members, a small project like the Mifflin clock can come to the forefront.
"Sometimes we're able to do the little things that are important to a community," he said.