Time heals: Clock maker shares gifts to honor son's memory
By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector
Sunday, October 21, 2018
Under ordinary circumstances, Billy Ellis and Bret Oliverio might not have given each other the time of day. One man is growing his business; the other is retired. One has just started a family; the other is a great-grandfather.
But they have one thing in common. Both understand the pain of time cut short with someone they loved.
It has been more than seven years since Oliverio lost his younger brother in a house fire. A few months earlier, in May 2011, Ellis lost his only son in a car accident.
When the two met shortly after 3 p.m. on Thursday, it was so that Ellis could present Oliverio with a clock that he had made, perhaps to symbolize the hope that time can heal wounds.
Derek Oliverio's name is engraved on the clock's handmade wooden case. On the bottom is the name of Ellis' son, Billy Don.
That is the name that has gone on the underside of every clock Ellis has ever made.
“I thought about time when I put a label on with my son's name,” he said. “The clock goes forward. His name goes forward.”
Ellis, who began making clocks in 2014, has been working with wood since his teenage years.
“When I was in high school, the teacher allowed me to go get a key from him and work in his shop at night, when I should have been studying,” he said, laughing.
The Farmville native clearly had a knack for woodworking. When he and his wife, Marie, were newlyweds, he set about making furniture for their home, from end tables to bedroom suites. After the Vietnam War, he volunteered to help teach veterans his craft.
While he made a career for himself in insurance, woodworking remained a passion. But it was not a hobby that Ellis and his son shared. Billy Don, who worked in sheet rock and metal construction, preferred hunting and fishing. But he was proud of his father's gift.
“My son admired my woodwork; he would brag on it,” Ellis said. “He thought my woodwork was good, even though he didn't care a whole lot about doing it.”
A few years ago, Ellis found that making bigger pieces was becoming too taxing. But he wanted to keep working with his hands, so he turned to clocks. His brother, Melvin, had been a jeweler and clock maker.
Ellis, who had learned clock repair from his brother, was not particularly interested in making the clock itself. He was content to order clock parts and focus his efforts on making casings for mantle clocks, mostly from scrap lumber.
It takes about a week for Ellis to turn planks of walnut, maple, tiger wood or chestnut into a wood casing for a clock. Boards are pressed and glued instead of nailed. There is no metal, and there are no brush strokes in the finish.
Ellis has made dozens of them. Most are not for sale, but he has given them as gifts to businessmen and mayors, coaches and radio personalities.
“I've met a lot of people through it,” Ellis said. “People see me and go, 'There's the Clock Man’. … I just don't know what I could have done that would have been more rewarding to me than this.”
About two years ago, he gave one to the “Voice of the Pirates,” Jeff Charles, in memory of his daughter, nursing student Heather Purtee, who died in a car crash 25 years ago. Her family continues to fund a nursing scholarship in her name.
When Ellis read a newspaper article about how Bret Oliverio was carrying on the work that his brother began at Sup Dogs, he decided where his next memorial clock should go.
It seemed an unusual choice since Ellis had never met either of the brothers and had never eaten at Sup Dogs. Before Thursday’s meeting, he did not even know exactly where Sup Dogs was. But something in the way the restaurant owner talked about his late brother in that article spoke volumes to Ellis. He appreciated the brothers' tight-knit relationship. He also admired the fact that Derek had been willing to risk his life to rescue his pets.
“I can understand,” Ellis said. “I'd go back to save my little dog.”
Ellis nearly lost his life trying to save his dog almost four years ago. The family's Chihuahua, Lucky, pulled its leash out of Ellis' hand and was running toward a busy street near his home. Lunging for the leash, Ellis fell to the ground. He suffered five broken ribs and a punctured lung and was not expected to survive. He spent nearly a month in intensive care.
But it was more than a common love for dogs that drew Ellis to want to remember Derek. It was also gratitude for how a stranger had remembered Billy Don.
Stephanie Hedgepeth heard the crash the night that Billy Don's car overturned near Black Jack. She ran out of her home and rushed to the scene, where she held his hand until the ambulance arrived.
After Ellis and his wife placed a wreath at the scene of the accident, Hedgepeth and Marie Ellis struck up a friendship. Hedgepeth helps to keep that memorial maintained.
“She keeps the wreath up,” Ellis said as he relayed the story to Oliverio. “It's still there. If it gets to looking bad, she'll go buy a new one. It's total strangers, just like you.”
But after last week, Oliverio and Ellis don’t seem like strangers anymore. Oliverio invited Billy and Marie back for a meal; he took down Ellis’ phone number.
“When my dad's in town, I'm sure he'd like to thank you and chat with you,” Oliverio told him.
“It sort of tells me how special my brother was as a person that seven years later, members of the community still remember him,” he said. “Strangers from the community still remember him and take the time and energy to make us something. That means a lot to me and my family.”
It has been worthwhile for Ellis as well.
“Talking about (Billy Don) helps me to remember,” he said. “It has meant a lot to me.
“The most important thing to me is when I give a clock away, I feel like I give my son's name and keep his memory alive.”