PINE BLUFF — Bob Abbott is a clockwork of his own making. He is the self-winding result of a $5-a-month correspondence course in watch repair, from which he learned so much that he never quit learning.
In time, he says, and with decades of curious clutter to show as evidence, “I turned it into one of the best businesses anybody could possibly have.”
Abbott made his start working on big pocket watches for big railroad men, and ladies’ sparkly little wristwatches. He tells what he knows from taking watches apart: They’re all about the same inside.
He applied his tiny tweezers to dashboard clocks that came out of heavy trucks — clunker clocks that nobody could make to work right, he says, “but I could.” Which led to speedometers, from which he engineered other technology for the trucking industry.
He made and shipped his automotive gizmos all over the world from Abbott Enterprises in Pine Bluff. And never mind if today’s world has gone to electronics in place of clock springs. He still finds markets in empty places so far from Jefferson County that power lines play out, cellphones are no use, and the only bars are the kind that serve Moosehead lager.
“I can pick or pull,” Abbott likes to say, an expression from the cotton fields of his Arkansas country-boy childhood eight decades ago. It means able to do practically anything.
For one, “I still go to work every day.”
His office revels in results the likes of — well, here — this black-box thing that he is pleased to identify as an Abbott Tachograph. Truckers need a gizmo like this to record each trip, and to figure such things as delivery times. Abbott’s simple-looking mechanism works just like it always did, even in the far reaches of Canada.
The office fronts a shop area that is part Henry Ford’s no-nonsense, part Thomas Edison’s laboratory of surprises, part single man’s closet. Drills and saws and plastic bins of cryptic little parts, gears, springs, make room for a popcorn machine and a jukebox.
He tinkers, he invents things out of clock pieces and PVC pipe, and talks about “working on something in the back that’s a rarity,” that could chase all the mosquitoes out of Arkansas.
“I’ve just about got all the bugs worked out of it.”
Confounding devices make sense to him, as when he learned to operate the state’s first at-home kidney dialysis machine. The treatment saved his father’s life.
Abbott wound up so immersed in kidney medicines and the needs of kidney patients, he volunteered for whatever else he could do to help the cause. The Arkansas Kidney Disease Commission’s Bob Abbott Distinguished Service Award is named for him.
He owns a number of historic properties, most famously Martha Mitchell’s childhood home in Pine Bluff. The 1887 landmark is just across the railroad tracks from Abbott Enterprises.
“One time, we had three tour buses over there,” he says. Visitors still come from fairly everywhere to peek through his free museum of all things Martha.
From out of this two-story, wood frame house, Martha Elizabeth Beall ascended to high-society as the wife of President Richard Nixon’s pipe-puffing attorney general, John Mitchell. Nixon blamed Martha for blabbing to the press about secrets that forced him to resign.
The president wouldn’t have caught Abbott talking politics, though, not even old politics, and no secrets about Martha’s house. “I never spent a night there,” Abbott says. He just wasn’t about to let the place fall apart.
Lately, “I go to nursing homes,” he says. “I’m a certified ombudsman. It’s so sad, but we seem to put our people in nursing homes like a warehouse. An ombudsman goes to nursing homes and visits different residents. I want to see them all. I ask, ‘Is everything all right for you? Are you being treated OK?’”
One way and another, he comes to the question of what needs fixing. And he is exactly what he set out to be: the repairman.
ALL IN GOOD TIME
Pine Bluff ’s downtown murals recall the city’s past of railroad and riverboat boom times.
One little part of a painted scene, easy to miss, shows Abbott as a towheaded boy with a shoeshine box — his fifth-grade after-school job in a barbershop.
He drives the slow streets downtown, past the hard times of empty storefronts, something else to fix. Ever watchful for signs of recovery, he points out the proposed site of a brewhouse, “and over there’s supposed to be a steak restaurant.”
If he sees more potential than some people would, it’s because he knows big things can come from as little as a shoeshine, or a little schooling.
“I went to high school,” he says, “but what’s that?”
He seemed destined to work in a lumber mill, starting on the ground floor with a broom, when he caught word that the Cotton Belt railroad needed telegraph operators. The railroad offered a choice that he could go to telegraph operators school, or he could teach himself on the job. Abbott tapped his own way to better prospects.
“It was good money compared to what I made at the sawmill,” he says, “that’s for sure. Sixty cents an hour. The railroad paid 90 cents an hour to start.”
The job took him pretty much everywhere the railroad went, Arkansas to Missouri, Missouri to Louisiana, Shreveport to Texarkana.
Sometimes, “I’d sit all day long,” he says, “and all I had to do was watch trains go by.”
He expects he still could click out a message in dots and dashes — still has a telegraph key, just in case. And trains still go by his shop on Pine Bluff’s Fourth Avenue. The metal building is a greenish mustard color that he defends as “antique bronze.” Written in the sidewalk cement is the date he moved in: 1977.
Parked out front is one of his few ideas that sputtered, an open-topped miniature replica 1901 Oldsmobile. He envisioned the car being so popular for parades and fun days, he soon would be turning out puttering little cars by assembly line. Not even his own grandchildren got the idea, though, and he had to concede the time to sell a 1901 Olds was maybe 1901.
Point is, he rolled out a number of these handmade flivvers, and it didn’t have to be automobiles — could have been anything else he imagined, or might think of tomorrow.
“I tell people we can build anything here,” Abbott says.
He counts about 15 employees including full- and part-timers. Roy Lester has been with Abbott Enterprises for 27 years, and says of the boss, “He’s efficient, and he’s always finding new ways to do things.”
FROM TIME TO TIME
The trains go by like steel tornadoes — commotions to which Abbott pays no attention. He holds his place like the framed memories and shelved mementos that surround him, proving points that otherwise might seem like a tall tale.
For one: the degree that certifies Bobby R. Abbott in master watchmaking by way of the Chicago School of Watchmaking, 1960.
“It was like going to school online,” he says, “I was going to school through the mail,” and paying his way. He sprang a couple dollars for broken watches that he fixed and sold for $15.
As a railroad man himself, he knew exactly where to find a clientele devoted to accurate timepieces: the railroad. And truckers, because his dad was a trucker. And then, what else does a truck need besides a clock? How about a hubodometer? (It tracks distance.)
Before long, he not only had his own business, he had a business philosophy that he passed along to his children.
“I believe you can do anything you want to,” Abbott says, “if you just make that extra step. Think for yourself.”
Son Jordan Abbott is chief data ethics officer for Acxiom in Little Rock, and daughter Amanda Abbott Ware is a 30-year elementary schoolteacher in North Little Rock. She likes to imagine how it would have been to have her father, as a boy, in one of her gifted and talented classes.
“I would have had my eye on him,” she says: a teacher’s sense for the extra-bright ones.
“Daddy’s mind is always working, always coming up with something,” she says. When his daughter had the idea of professional cheerleading, he set a different goal for her. Educator.
Ware describes a childhood of family travels by RV as far as Canada, and fundraising cook-offs and blistered-bottom trail rides to raise money for her father’s kidney charities.
“There should be more Bob Abbotts.”
Abbott’s surroundings include a doctor’s-office model of a kidney — the kind that comes apart to show the inside. It calls attention on a shelf where Abbott can see it every time he looks up from his desk.
A sure-fire conversation starter (or stopper), the organ-on-a-stick signifies his long involvement with kidney health problems. The cause goes back nearly 50 years to his father’s kidney failure.
Doctors gave the suddenly weakening Floyd Abbott just one chance to live, but it was expensive and practically unheard-of: home dialysis. The treatment called for a machine to do the blood-cleansing work of normal kidneys.
“I was 35,” Bob Abbott says. “I had a wife, a kid, a brand-new car and a house. I was young enough to think you never die.” But he and his whole family pitched in to care for his father, whose health improved almost immediately.
Having witnessed an apparent miracle, Abbott was determined to support as many other people as possible in coping with kidney disease.
He is a founder of the Arkansas Kidney Disease Commission, established in 1971 to help pay kidney patients’ expenses. In 2002, he received the National Kidney Foundation of Arkansas’ Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2010, the American Association of Kidney Patients named him National Volunteer of the Year.
A 2011 state Senate resolution cited Abbott “for his tireless efforts to help kidney patients,” and he was inducted to the Senior Arkansans Hall of Fame in 2015 for “outstanding volunteer contributions.”
Just being able to help is what counts, Abbott says.
“There’s no greater blessing.”
Historian Abbott writes for the Jefferson County Historical Quarterly, including the close-to-home story of “The Old Beard Homestead.” Abbott owns and restored his Grandpa Beard’s log cabin, where “some of the happiest days of my life were spent.” The 1870 dogtrot is on the Arkansas Register of Historic Places.
“He is a most remarkable man,” Abbott’s longtime friend Brenda Miles says, “exuberant, multifaceted, extremely personable.”
MAN OF THE HOUR
Abbott’s favorite drive is this stretch of U.S. 65 through Pine Bluff, designated the Martha Mitchell Expressway. Watergate made her famous, and Abbott makes certain she is remembered in her hometown.
He never met the woman — caught just a glimpse of her one time. He describes an impressive cloud of permed blond hair. He says it’s only right to remember the late Mitchell as a figure of history from Pine Bluff. What else could he do but see to it that her name went on the highway sign.
“It gives me a good feeling every time,” he says. If she could, she might say the fix-it man fixed her up mighty well.
Abbott sees the future for himself in more old-fashioned repair work, the ethic he learned from fixing watches. Even if the day comes when people wear nothing but throw-away digital watches, if watches at all, no matter.
Even if happens that robots take over all the truck traffic that goes through Pine Bluff, a proud graduate of the Chicago School of Watchmaking still can find things that need improvement.
“What I want to do now is make a difference,” Abbott says. “Try to help someone who can’t help themselves. It’s extremely fulfilling.”
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: May 8, 1935, at home six miles east of Sparkman in Dallas County.
ONE REASON I’M PROUD TO BE FROM SPARKMAN IS: You’ve heard of the Sparkman Sparklers? They were the women’s national champion high school basketball team. (The “wonder girl team,” 1930).
I DRIVE A: 2008 Ford Explorer. I’ve got an old car, but I don’t go anywhere.
BEING A WATCH REPAIRMAN, THE WATCH I WEAR MOST IS: A self-winding Bulova.
BEING AN INVENTOR, THE THING I WOULD MOST LIKE TO INVENT IS: A thing you could wear like a watch that would tell your blood pressure. They say it can’t be done. I just know there has to be some way to do it.
BEING A SPEEDOMETER FIX-IT GUY: I’ve never had any speedometer trouble.
IF MARTHA MITCHELL COULD SEE THE WAY I’VE TAKEN CARE OF HER HOUSE: I think she would be pleased.
SOMETHING NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT ME IS: It bothers me to find out that somebody doesn’t like me. What did I do that was so bad? What can I do?
MY FAVORITE MEAL IS: Country smoked ham, green beans, crispy cornbread and a big piece of onion.
THE PEOPLE I WOULD INVITE TO MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY WOULD BE: What good would it do me to eat with a bunch of big shots I’ve only read about? I’d choose to eat with my family. Family is the most important thing.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Determined. Especially if somebody says, “You can’t do that.”
Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Bob Abbott is a clock repairman, but the Arkansas entrepreneur is also a fixer of nearly anything endangered