​The Clock Master Begins Massive Cleaning of Breslin Clock

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

The interview with Keith Henley starts five minutes late and it’s easy to tell with the huge Seth Thomas No. 15 tower clock sitting in his dining room.
The No. 15 is a slightly smaller version of the No. 16 Seth Thomas clock in Breslin Tower on the campus of the University of the South, where Henley is “clock master,” a title bestowed upon him by the University.
“I wasn’t in on the naming. I like ‘caretaker’ a lot better,” he said.
Henley started as the sole caretaker six years ago, after his mentor Paul Engsberg died. Engsberg, University registrar, was the second clock master of the Breslin Tower timepiece, which dates to 1900.
Henley, 31, takes no money for his work, even though the University does regularly cut him a check. He lets them pile up at the accounting office until someone throws them away.
“It didn’t seem right to take money,” he said. “It’s extremely fun to do and you’re getting to work on a machine that nobody could just walk up to and say, ‘I’m going to take this apart,’ or ‘I’d like to set the time on it.’ It feels enough like a privilege just to be a part of the history of the clock.”
Sewanee Vice-Chancellor John McCardell said Henley’s work is much appreciated.
“Keith is a man who loves his work and undoubtedly knows more about the Breslin Tower mechanisms than anyone else. And what a blessing that is,” McCardell said. “His painstaking care of the winders and his meticulous attention to detail means that none of us can ever offer the excuse that we did not know what time it was, or that the Breslin clock was off. So we might add the virtue of punctuality to the many other benefits we have received at Keith’s hand.”
Henley noted that the “Westminister Quarters,” the chime of the Breslin Tower clock and many others, started as a prayer, four verses saying, “Lord through this hour, be thou our guide, so by thy power, no foot shall slide.”
“That is another reason I like to show people about time,” he said. “So as people pass a clock and hear it chime, remember that a clock is a reminder of the gift of time given by God himself…I say that prayer with the clock when it chimes.”
During Christmas break, Henley started a project to clean every part of the clock, a process that will take years to complete, in large part because of the deep and careful cleaning involved.
He disassembled and cleaned one of the three winders in the clock, which included soaking the oil and grease-coated transmission in a solution of kerosene and Dawn dishwashing liquid to strip off the main grease, followed by washing with clock cleaner. The one winder took about two weeks.
“After you clean everything and you remove all the old grease and build-up over the years, the sad part is, once you do that, you have to start oiling it again,” he said. “So now the oil you’re adding today will be the oil you’ll have to remove a couple of years down the road.”
The project includes pictures of his work for a book on how to disassemble and clean the clock. He’s also creating a ledger of the work he’s doing on the clock, which will help a future clock master and also identify parts that may be wearing out.
The design of the clock is intricate, with its driving chains, weight trips, pulleys, sprockets, bell strikers, winding arbors, bushings, shafts and hundreds of other parts. But Henley notes that most of the clock is original despite its age, which is a testament to the workmanship and design from the Seth Thomas Clock Company, which its namesake started in the early 1800s. Henley hasn’t had to correct the time in the Breslin Tower clock in six months, he noted.
At his home, Henley has about 20 clocks, and all but two of those are Seth Thomas clocks; the other two are antique Gustav Beckers, a German clockmaker. His house is filled with ticking, which he doesn’t hear anymore, but when he shuts the clocks down, the silence is loud.
“When you become a collector of clocks, when the ticking stops, it’s something else. It bothers you more than the ticking itself,” he said.
A Huntsville chapter member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Henley said he would like to travel to different cities repairing tower clocks.
For questions or to requests tours of the Breslin Tower clock, email Henley at theclock@sewanee.edu.