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One man's love affair with a clock

One man's love affair with a clock
The Eagle Tribune
Monday, July 13, 1998
Charlie Waites maintaining the clock mechanisms

He looks after the world's largest mill clock

Charles E. Waites, keeper of the Ayer Mill clock, has a job that requires strength, agility and fearlessness in the face of heights

LAWRENCE- On a sweltering summer day, the keeper of Lawrence's most prominent clock hoists a 6-foot ladder up flights of steep stairs speckled with pigeon droppings to the tower.
This is one of the easier tasks. Others include replacing light bulbs that illuminate the clock's four faces while balancing on 80 year-old planks. The drop is at least 30 feet, but the lit clockface is visible from nearby interstate 495. Charles E. Waites, 46, works alone for the most part. Visitors are a liability in a space with numerous drop-offs, and he knows his way around in the dark.

"I've always had a passion for this particular clock", said the Lawrence native. "Since I was a kid, I was always staring at it. It was a giant, a clock of some significance".

When he started to help with the clock's restoration 7 years ago, he was a machinist by training and knew nothing about clocks. Now he can tell what adjustments are required just by climbing the 220 feet up into the clock tower and listening to it whir and turn.

"It tells me what it needs," he said. "This isn't your average clock."

An oiling of the pulleys calls for another balancing act up steel towers. And when the electric motors that haul up the 2,000 pound weights that run the clock fail, he has to crank them by hand. In the fall, the spiders need to be chased off the dials with a leaf blower.

"I'm a nervous wreck when I do it, but I do it anyhow," said the 257 pound man. "I'm maintaining a giant."

The world's largest mill clock with dials only 6 inches smaller than Big Ben in London, is located in the Ayer Mill building on South Union Street, in Lawrence. The clock was installed in 1910 by E. Howard Company in Boston, out of business since the 1930s. It stopped ticking around 1955 only to be restored in 1991 for close to $1 million.
While Mr. Waites always wished the clock was in better condition, he became actively involved when the move to restore it began and public awareness grew.

"I thought I was the only nut around who cared," he said, surprised by the flow of cash.

He is paid a monthly stipend by the (Essex County Community Foundation) to work a minimum of 10 hours a week. Mr. Waites worries more about the clock than himself, his only precautions are to carry a radio to communicate to the front desk of New Balance in the building below and to do the most strenuous work in the morning when he is fresh. After two heart operations, he knows his limits and intends to remain the keeper as long as his health is good. But when the winds blow, the tower is vulnerable.

"I worry about storms, I worry about hurricanes," he said.

The 12-foot-long hands mounted on 1,600 pounds of glass, much of it original, bear a lot of strain under such conditions. And when the wind comes up unexpectedly, he has been thrown to the floor.

Moisture, too, is a problem thanks to the original, leaking copper roof that needs replacing. He spends alot of time sweeping up brick flakes that come off the interior walls. Painting the wooden structure that holds the 2,000 pound cast iron and bronze clock has been held up by the rains, which prevent the paint from drying. Errant pigeons leave unwelcome presents and once a turkey buzzard tried to lay claim to part of the multi-floored tower.

Mr. Waites' job description includes keeping the levels leading to the tower clean and maintaining the clock itself. Replacing cogs is a matter of copying the originals, but sometimes he has to make the tools to correct specifications first. In 1991, all the steel gears and shafts were remade as the originals had rusted to pieces. Bronze parts were repaired.

"You have to become a machinist. All clocks are basically the same," he said. "But mechanically she's superior, she's great."

At his day job with MKS Instruments Inc. in Lawrence, Mr. Waites makes instruments that measure barometric pressure and control the flow of gases used in the manufacturing of computer chips. They, too, require great precision. If properly cared for, the clock should last 350 years. And eventually, someone will have to replace Mr. Waites. When asked about his successor, he said that the last two men he started training could not handle the heights. In general, his job description either evokes great excitement or total boredom from people he meets.

"Some people say 'oh really?' and their eyes glaze over. Others say 'oh great! Can I get up there?'" Mr. Waites said.

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