Not only has his career taken him into a lot of fields, ranging from watchmaker, to jewels, then gems, and now clock repair, it’s also taken him to many different parts of the world and made him what some folks would say a legend in that business.
Richard J. Morel, of New London, works on a clock at his office in New London.
For Richard J. Morel, of New London, each step has been a natural progression. “I’ve had a great ride. I have always liked what I do,” said Morel, whose latest venture is a business in New London called Tik Tok Clock Repair.
Morel ended up in New London because his wife, Betty June (Huebner) grew up there. “Marv (his wife’s father) wanted us to come up here so I sold my house in Clear Lake and moved up here.”
At the time, Morel was doing sales for jewelers all over the country. “I did the things I wanted to dream about. I took about three months off, and then one of her friends came to the house and asked if I could fix her clock, and I did.”
That was the start of the clock repair business. He first used one of the spare bedrooms in their home, and then soon he was using both spare bedrooms. “One night my wife shook me about midnight and said ‘that grandfather’s clock going off at midnight is too much, you’ve got to move these out of here.’” The next morning when he went to the restaurant, he walked by the building in which he’s now located, saw it was for rent and just like that rented it. It didn’t take long for his new business to take off. “All of a sudden they started coming, and they’re still coming.”
Morel said he’s had a wonderful ride. “Our generation will go down in history as one of the greatest that ever lived because of where we came from. Our first house that I can remember didn’t have electricity or an indoor toilet. Life was simple.”
Doing clock repair has been a real godsend, Morel said. “I’m 79, and I feel like I’m still 20. I take a clock that’s a piece of junk….one lady come in and threw it (her clock) on the desk, and I said ‘wait, wait, wait. Do you know what that clock’s worth?’ She said ‘I don’t care; I don’t ever want to see it again.’ It’s truly a nice old clock.”
Morel said he has a lot of clocks to fix that customers have brought in, including grandfather clocks. Morel repairs the clocks, but he doesn’t do the finishing work himself. “I have Ken Johnson to do that. He’s probably the best I’ve ever had. We make them look just like they’re brand new.”
Most of the clocks that come in are either clocks that are current, grandfather clocks, or antique ones families are preserving. Morel recalled one clock that came in covered with pigeon manure. “I cleaned it up, and when she came in and saw it, she sat down and cried. It was that beautiful. Then I had one lady who didn’t like it. I said ‘If you don’t like it don’t pay for it,’ and she didn’t.”
The clocks all have a history, he said, pointing to a small kitchen clock he was repairing. “That has a little alarm in it that our grandparents used to cook bread by.” He went on to say his grandparents had a clock like that in the kitchen. It sat to the left of the cookstove. “When grandma cooked bread there is a little knob to turn. She could go and do her work and when the bell went off, the meal or whatever she was cooking was ready.” After the kitchen clock, they went to the buffet ones, and when you went to grandma’s house, it was in the living room and when the clock struck noon everyone was to be seated. “That sat up on a little block on the buffet. That was the next step and that started happening in about 1880 and carried on through about 1910 when they started doing the modern-type thing.”
He said these clocks sold for $2, and some for $19, which was a lot of money back then. He said the one clock he’s working on today will have a value of about $1,000 when he’s finished because there are very few of them like that. “I tell them, keep the clocks, and don’t throw them out. They’ll never be replaced.”
Morel’s love of gems, watches and clocks actually started when he was in high school. He was born in Illinois, and one of his instructors at the high school, a high-ranking former World War II veteran, asked him what he was going to do with his life. Morel said he didn’t know, so the instructor took him to his home and told him to lay out a plan and they would see what they could come up with. One of Morel’s ideas was to attend Northwestern where one of his friends was going to be going. “He said ‘no, you’re more talented than that, I think you should look at watch making,’ and he set up a meeting at an Elgin National Watch Company about 30 miles away.”
Morel said next to that watch factory there was a college where they were training World War II vets that were returning home and a lot of other young guys. “The head of the school, who was almost 90, said he wanted me to come there, so I enrolled right out of high school and went into the watch making business. Just before I graduated, they recruited me to come to Washington to be interviewed, and so I did, and then I worked at a jewelry store at night too.” He said the job with the government was not what he wanted, so he quit and went back to Chicago and worked in a jewelry store in Wheaton, Ill.
At age 22, he decided to start his own store. His boss told him if he was going to leave he should go to Mason City, Iowa, to buy his dad’s store. He bought the store and moved out there. He was fixing watches day and night and finally decided he wanted to get more into jewelry so he went to California where he took a gem course. He ended up purchasing a jewelry store, then another store, and another, eventually ending up with five stores.
He took another jewelry management course and ended up speaking at conventions. He was president of the Iowa Jeweler’s Association. He started a Retail Jewelry Owned company with another man. “We got about 17 jewelers that were going to be our buying group so we could get a better discount. Then Grant Johnson, my partner, had a son that was a doctor in California so he went there every winter and started doing the same thing there. To make a long story short, it’s today the biggest buying group and it’s all independents.” Morel has since resigned because he had too many other things going on.
He ended up as a certified gemologist for the American Gem Society at the youngest age anybody ever did. “It was something I wanted to do. I ended up as president of the Iowa Jewelers Association from 1965 to 1967, and then retail management in Newark N.J. That ended in 1970. I was elected Boss of the Year by the Minneapolis Women’s Association. I had a diamond grading certificate and went around the country. I was ahead of the wave a little bit.”
Morel was actually the youngest certified gemologist for the American Gem Society when he got his degree.
The Mayor of Mason City appointed Morel to revamp the downtown of Mason City. “That took several years.” Morel said he went to the high court, won and got J.C. Penney’s to come into town. “No one could get them. My friend and I went to New York, he was going to put another store in out in the country, we blocked that and took out four square blocks and built a shopping center right in the heart of downtown.” Then Morel started buying real estate in Mason City. “My friend designed and built many houses, then built a corner building. One day as board of directors for banks, the president of United Home Bank told me he wanted me to buy a specific building and make something out of it since nobody else wanted to do it. So I did. I put 19 apartments upstairs on two floors above. Then I put in Piper Jaffrey, a stock broker, a chamber of commerce office, and a small loan company. During this time I was building the stores too. I had a good run on that. I was on the board of directors at the bank and Pioneer Savings and Loan. I was having fun.”
Morel then decided if he was going to be a jeweler he had to see the world. A friend of his accompanied him to Japan to look at the pearl business. From there, Morel went to the diamond mines in South Africa. The first stop was Rhodesia, then South Africa. “I visited various places. I was down in the earth almost a mile where they were mining.” He then returned home and lectured for about a year. He was also traveling to Europe twice a year during which he purchased unusual items. He also traveled to China where he purchased more items. Morel also served on the Children of America Board in New York.
His past honors also include meeting Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George Bush Sr., Ronald Reagan and Rudy Boschwitz.
What a life, what memories to take out from time to time, and who knows what more will come from this man, who has such talent, ambition and zest for life.