Still Ticking

Henry Line '38

Henry Line ’38, who died Feb. 25, repaired watches for more than 85 years and was sought out worldwide by collectors and owners of family heirlooms. Below is Dickinson Magazine's summer 2010 profile of the prolific jeweler.

by Sherri Kimmel

Not many folks can claim the same line of work for 80-some years. Fewer are still hard at it. But then, there’s Henry Line ’38.

You’ll find him all days, even Sundays, high atop his pentagonal perch—a red-brick towerlike structure curiously positioned in a parking lot northwest of the First Presbyterian Church on Carlisle’s square.

Enter the arched white-framed door and you’ll see to your right a long, curved desk that the proprietor designed. To your left are comfortable chairs. Straight ahead is a glass door, with gold script that reads:

Welcome to Line & Line

One of Pennsylvania’s Oldest Jewelers

Have a chair

Someone will be with you shortly

Through the glass, you see cases of gold, silver and gemstone jewelry and all manner of wall and mantle clocks. To your left is a narrow elevator with a black iron accordion door. Buzz for the owner, and he’ll come down and convey you to the light-filled room where he plies his trade, using tools that would be past retirement age if they were people.

It’s safe to say Henry Line is one of the oldest and hardest-working experts in a field that has few remaining practitioners—watchmaking and repair.

The son of Carlisle attorney J. Harvey Line, class of 1896, and his wife Harriet, began tinkering with clocks when he was 12. “We had a rather large home on North Hanover Street, with something like six or seven bedrooms,” Henry recalls. “On a shelf in every bedroom was a clock, and none of them worked. I do have some mechanical aptitude, and by the time I got to college, I had a pretty good business on the side repairing clocks. Before I graduated, I started to work on watches.”

A chemistry major during the Great Depression, Line was eager to earn some spending money and soon found professors and a few students willing to oblige him. One favorite customer was physics professor Amos Parlin, whose Hamilton watch Line enjoyed tending.

When Line graduated, times were still hard, and he kept on with what had now become not a hobby but a vocation. A few years later, the United States entered World War II, and Amos Parlin, again, gave Line a boost, this time suggesting he learn to fly airplanes and assist with the training of Dickinson’s cadets. “I taught flying for a couple of years—I had more than 3,000 hours—and that kept me from being drafted. You might say that’s how I served during World War II.”

Line had two siblings who attended Dickinson, Lemuel ’39 and Harriette ’45. (Henry added to the Dickinson legacy with son Henry III ’64 and granddaughter Christine ’01.) He also had two other brothers, Richard and James. “My brother James and I formed a partnership and bought this building in 1950,” Henry recalls. “Joseph P. McKeehan, an attorney in town who also taught at the law school, built it in the mid-1920s.”

In the mid-1950s, a fire destroyed part of the building, and the Lines had it rebuilt, adding two floors and the elevator. In 1959, James and Henry dissolved their partnership, but Henry stayed on.

As a watch repairman, you might say he’s the last of his Line.

At least that’s what his customers will tell you. On a recent spring day, a man waited in the downstairs reception area as the elevator hummed, signaling Line’s descent. While he waited, he revealed that he was a watch collector who had moved to Carlisle six months earlier—and already had brought Line four watches. “No one works on watches and clocks anymore,” he sighed.

Ashton Nichols, an English professor and Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies, has frequented the shop for 20 years. “How remarkable it is to carry my watches and mantle clock in to a nonagenarian and have him work so efficiently and effectively on them,” he says. “And it’s virtually Dickensian standing there and realizing that, in the last century, little has changed.”

Another regular, Tullio Pagano, brought Line his solid-gold Longines first-communion watch about 20 years ago. “If you have an old watch that needs repair, that’s him,” says the associate professor of Italian. Pagano admires the shop, which he says looks like a movie set, often with one of Line’s five Brittany spaniels lounging about. But he’s also impressed with Line’s exactitude.

“When he fixes a watch he puts it in a little envelope and writes on it, telling you exactly what he did.” Pagano points out that Line’s customers come from hours away, a fact that the repairman confirms. U.S. Army War College short-timers remain steady customers, even after they move on to posts in Europe or Washington, D.C.

If you ask Line which brands he admires, he’ll mention Vacheron Constantin, and with a dreamy look in his eyes, another Swiss brand, Rolex. “I love to work on Rolexes, because they are beautifully made,” he says.

A Rolex is not just pricey, starting at around $4,000, but expensive to maintain. “Currently, to have a Rolex cleaned can cost more than $500,” Line confirms. “How long does it take to clean one? Not as long as the price would indicate but several hours.”

In his nearly 100 years, Line has seen many timepiece progressions—from the pocket watch to, post-World War I, the wristwatch, to battery-powered and quartz watches in the 1970s. The latter are just as reliable at a purchase price of $10 as at $100, he explains.

What kind of watch does the expert wear? He’ll hold up his wrist to show you a gold beauty crafted in the 1950s. It’s a Henriline (pronounced HenRaLine), and you guessed it. It’s his invention.

The latest version of the Henriline will be his most revolutionary. “It’s my biggest claim to fame, and we’re still working on it,” he says confidently.

Over near the elevator, he’ll sit you down and show you the stack of documents his patent attorney has prepared. “I don’t know what to say as to the estimate of when we’ll have the prototype; I’m hoping within the year,” Line says.

What’s mind-bending about the watch is it will have four batteries. “This is the stem, and it’s made so that you can switch from one battery to another [when one runs down],” he says, pointing at mechanical drawings. “I’m pretty proud of the way that worked out.”

So, at 96, still inventing, still repairing with sharp eye and steady hand, what else does Line like to do? “I subscribe to at least 30 magazines, and there’s nothing more I enjoy after dinner than to sit down with a new magazine. I get New York, The New Yorker, trade magazines, Aviation History …”

After dinner, it used to be he’d head back to the shop. “But I don’t do that anymore.”

Though he’s reduced his workday from noon til about 6 p.m., when his wife Connie insists he return for supper, Line proclaims, “I love the work. My work is my play. I’d just as soon spend my time working on watches.”

Published July 1, 2011