MAPLETON, Iowa | Vernis Phillips clocked-in on Main Street in Mapleton, sight-unseen, 66 years ago.
"I didn't know anyone in town," Phillips says.
The year was 1951. Phillips, a World War II veteran from Lake View, Iowa, had just completed two years of work for a watchmaker in nearby Sac City. When a traveling salesman stopped through Sac City, he suggested that Vernis, if he wanted to branch out on his own, take a look at Mapleton.
"The man said it was a good town for business," Vernis recalls.
The watchmaker/jeweler agrees. Mapleton has been a good place for Phillips Jewelry, a "mom-and-pop shop" that has kept folks here running on time for 66 years.
After wrapping up a different interview in Mapleton on Wednesday, I check the clock and find myself with a few extra minutes. I saunter into Phillips Jewelry to meet Vernis, who sits at his bench, surrounded by tools as tiny as a centipede's legs.
"I grew up in Lake View," Vernis says. "My dad was a machinist and my mother, a housewife. Dad had a heart attack and died when he was 58. It happened in 1944, my senior year in high school."
Vernis, who had worked on the railroad and in gravel pits during the summers of his youth, was drafted by the U.S. Army after high school, shortly after World War II ended. Months later, he was destined for Korea, about to step on a ship when orders for him and 16 fellow soldiers changed.
"I had my duffel bag on the ship already," he says. "But my orders were changed and I was sent to Texas, where I joined an outfit that worked on closing bases."
Then, while traveling with fellow soldiers from California to Texas, their train wrecked, killing nine, injuring 109. Vernis escaped injury. "Our car did not upset, although it went off the tracks," he says.
Vernis completed his tour, a veteran of World War II. He returned to Lake View and secured a job with a contractor. He was a bricklayer tender for one year before heading to the Kansas City School of Watchmaking, joining a pal from Lake View who was already enrolled.
"We did watchmaking and jewelry repair," he says of his two-year course of study, a regimen that preceded a one-year apprenticeship in Sac City that expanded into a full-time job one year later.
Vernis was at work in Sac City when the salesman suggested he look at Mapleton. Vernis did and set up shop in a building where Hoffman Insurance Agency stands now. There was one other jeweler in town at the time. For decades, there's just been Mr. Phillips.
"My first shop location had been a restaurant, but it had closed," he recalls. "I took roughly half the area of the building and a harness maker had the other half."
Vernis put up a sign in 1951 and placed ads in the newspaper, a lone proprietor hoping to make ends meet in a new community. He stayed at that site for three months, then moved west down Main Street, next door to where his shop has been since the mid-1960s, on the 400 block, in a building he purchased when he relocated.
Vernis's family suffered a tragedy when his wife, LaDonna, died in 1960, leaving him alone with their two young children. The family, though, expanded in June 1962, when Vernis and Marlene Carstens, who had come to Mapleton from Fremont, Nebraska, to teach high school home economics, exchanged marital vows. The couple would add a third child to their family and now boast of having five grandchildren.
Two of their children, Marlene says with a laugh, have clocked-out on their respective careers, beating their dad to retirement.
Marlene quit teaching after she and Vernis married. She raised their children, then joined him at Phillips Jewelry years ago. On this afternoon, she counts back a customer's change before reminding the patron to register for a free Thanksgiving turkey. As the clocks chime in unison at the top of the hour, Vernis tends to the exacting details of watchmaking at his space in the back.
"This watch takes a certain sized battery," he says, reciting the number 3-7-1 on the back. He opens a drawer, finds the right battery, one-third the size of a baby aspirin, then turns back to his work.
The watch-repair pro shrugs off my questions about retirement and, like a world-famous brand, keeps on ticking.
"I work because I enjoy it," he says. "I like the repair end of this and the joy of solving problems. My eyesight is good -- 20/20 in the left eye, 20/25 in the right -- and my hands are still steady."
And while he's not relishing the day when Father Time asks him to set down his tools, Vernis says he eagerly anticipates the clock striking 12 on Dec. 6, his 90th birthday. The people -- his gifts, you might say -- mean more than any number.
"For me, turning 90 will be special because the kids are coming back," he says.