BENTONVILLE - At Overstreet’s Jewelry, Ralph Overstreet’s 97-year-old hands are still repairing watches, just as they have been doing along the town square for more than 65 years.
He works six days a week in a profession requiring concentration and dexterity. On a typical day, he makes his bed and then does at least a dozen push-ups and about 20 sit-ups before coming to work. He repairs watches two or three hours in the morning, takes a break for lunch, and then returns for two or three more hours. He loves his work.
"I suppose that every time I get a piece of machinery that’s failed in some way, I can perhaps restore it so that it works again," he said.
A widower, he lives alone and drives himself to work. He takes no prescription drugs.
Asked about his longevity, he said, "I just feel like it’s the Lord’s been taking care of me. The reason I am here is because He has a purpose for me."
He credits his steady hands to Jell-O. When hip pain once forced him to walk with a cane, after three weeks of eating Jell-O, the pain was gone, and he’s been eating it with meals ever since.
Skeptical? Gelatin is produced from collagen, a protein contained in cartilage and bone. I’m not endorsing it, but Google it and see what you find. Regardless, Ralph is repairing watches at age 97.
Despite his many years in Bentonville, Ralph is not originally a hometown boy. He spent several years in nearby Springdale as a child and ran track for three spring semesters at the University of Arkansas. He placed third in the Southwest Conference in the mile his last year. Life took him to Kentucky, where his grades were not quite good enough for medical school, so he instead went to school to learn to make watches. Drafted by the Navy in World War II, he served in the Pacific and, after the war, eventually landed in South Dakota.
He moved to Bentonville and opened Overstreet’s Jewelry in 1948 after he attended his wife Belle’s sister’s wedding in Springdale and learned that a watch repair shop was for sale.
He has seen a lot in his 65-plus years in business. Bentonville was a country town of less than 3,000 when he moved there. Now it has almost 40,000. At least five competing watch repairers have come and gone. Walmart founder Sam Walton opened his famous five-and-dime in the same town square.
For many years, Belle ran the operation while he was "just the mechanic," Ralph said. When she had a stroke, son Don was brought on board. Now grandson Doug works there, too.
Business is good. Sometimes he’ll get a batch of 10 watches at a time. Some can’t be fixed, and when that happens, he’ll inform his customers. But if he can fix it, he will. Some of these watches are family heirlooms. Age doesn’t diminish value, and in many ways, it enhances it.
A man whose life has been based on time has been given a lot of it. How that’s based on destiny versus genetics versus choices, I can’t say for sure. But to some degree, we stop getting up in the morning when we no longer have a good reason to do so. His life is marked by purpose, meaningful but not oppressive work, a healthy routine, consistent time with family, engagement with his community, and faith. Ralph repairs watches with his son and grandson for his fellow townsfolk. If he didn’t do that, who would?
An old watch can still tell time. An old watch repairer can still fix an old watch. Age doesn’t diminish value, and in many ways, it enhances it.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.