- Written by Bart A. Stump Bart A. Stump
Fred Reiss has been an Army medic, an elementary teacher, and a school principal and continues to be an intrepid world traveler, an avid bicyclist, and an enthusiastic collector.
But the role he has fulfilled the longest has been the keeper of time: His knowledge of clocks and watches extends for over 75 years.
Reiss’s father, George, was the son of German immigrants and didn’t speak English until he went to grade school. He trained as a machinist and eventually became a watchmaker.
He opened George Reiss Jeweler, a retail jewelry store that has been in the family for 70 years. It is now run by Fred Reiss’s brother, Max, and niece, Karen, and has been rebranded as The Watchmaker’s Daughter in York.
“When I was 13 years old, my father sat me down at the bench and taught me to repair clocks,” Reiss said. “I worked in several other jewelry stores in York as a kid.”
Using this experience, Reiss is a 20-year volunteer at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, a multifaceted location that functions as the international headquarters for the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC).
The building also houses the National Watch and Clock Museum (nawcc.org/index.php/museum), the largest horological collection in North America with more than 12,000 items.
Additionally, its walls contain a library and research center, composed of more than 30,000 books, catalogs, and periodicals in various languages. Some of the books are over 450 years old.
“It’s the largest horological library in the world,” Reiss said. “We get people who come from all the different states and countries to research in the library because we have such an extensive library, and we have a valuable archives with much of the stuff left over from when Hamilton Watch was in Lancaster, [as well as] Illinois Watch Company, Elgin Watch Company, and records that really aren’t available anywhere else.”
Volunteering at NAWCC was an easy fit for Reiss, whose watchmaker father knew one of the organization’s founders, Columbia resident Earl Strickler.
Reiss’s charisma and vast knowledge of horology — the art or science of making timepieces or of measuring time — has twice earned him the honor of being the organization’s Volunteer of the Year, an award he takes in modest stride.
“I like to have something to do and know a little bit about watches and clocks,” Reiss said.
“Fred can establish a great rapport with patrons with his smile and helpful attitude and an occasional anecdote from his career,” James Campbell, the museum’s research library supervisor, said.
“No matter the task that Fred is given (shelving books, answering the phone), you know it will be done with a professional flair. Just having Fred in our research library and at our various functions adds a touch of class and friendly demeanor that can’t be beat.”
Reiss earned his undergraduate degree from Millersville University and was drafted into the Army during the Korean conflict, attaining the rank of corporal and serving as a medic in the 3rd Infantry Division. Reiss served stateside and spent most of his enlistment at Fort Benning in Georgia.
Following his military service, he utilized the G.I. Bill and completed his graduate degree at Penn State.
Before retiring, Reiss taught fifth and sixth grade for five years and served as an elementary principal for 25 years with the York Suburban School District.
Reiss enjoys volunteering and finds it especially rewarding “seeing what a great resource [the library] is for people who have an interest in horology … I’ve made some very good new friends over the 20 years from there.”
Being surrounded by such an eclectic variety of clocks and watches, does Reiss have a favorite timepiece?
“Yes, I do! My favorite timepiece is my Patek Philippe watch,” Reiss said.
Naturally, watches have served as gifts since Reiss’s childhood.
“My mother wasn’t much of a shopper,” he laughed, “and about every third year she’d go into my father’s store and pick out a nice, solid-gold wristwatch and give it to me for Christmas. In fact, I got my first really good watch when I graduated from high school, which was a solid-gold Universal Geneva watch, which is a very desirable timepiece.”
Reiss has had many notable encounters over the years at the museum, including authors, collectors, and watch executives from Germany, France, Japan, and Switzerland.
“When we have fairly large new exhibits, they are often sponsored by a Swiss watch company, and their executives come over and we have a social [for] invited guests in the evening and then open the display,” Reiss said. “We have hors d’oeuvres and cocktails and things, and it’s very lovely.”
Working among such an extensive collection comes as second nature for Reiss.
“I collect clocks and watches … My parents were collectors, and two of my father’s brothers were auctioneers and antique dealers. So, we collect working decoys. My wife collects hand-carved shorebirds. She collects Rose Medallion china. I collect scales, like balance scales for weighing things in grocery stores, and little scales to weigh gold and letters.
“We don’t collect too much anymore because we don’t have room to display it … we have other mementos from all over the world that we like to have sitting around,” Reiss added.
Reiss and his wife, Mary, have traveled the world, having been to the Baltic, China, Peru, Africa, the Panama Canal, England, France, Canada, Finland, and Lapland.
“Our next trip planned out of the county is to go to Iceland,” Reiss said.
In addition to globe hopping, they have been avid bicyclists for 50 years, having gone as far as Holland to ride.
When not bicycling, the Reisses enjoy spending time with Mary’s two sons from a previous marriage, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
At age 89, Reiss is especially appreciative of what life has given him.
“My wife and I are very fortunate. We have nice children, nice grandchildren, nice daughters-in-law. We’re relatively healthy. What more can you ask for?”