Columbus man makes time to enjoy life, help others

A Columbus man has always kept a close eye on the time.

Early in his career, Peter Kaiser would spend a week straight on the road as a traveling salesman for a northern Indiana firm, but it was too much time away from home. When Kaiser got the chance to become an appliance repairman in Columbus, the job kept him on the road all day but he was able to come home every night — which meant less time away from home.

The next logical career progression, Kaiser said, would be to own his own company and control all of his time.

Having read an article on chimney sweeps, Kaiser — who heated his home with wood — became intrigued with the idea of becoming a chimney sweep. After offering to clean his landlady’s chimney as a trial run and finding success, Kaiser launched Pete the Sweep, which he ran in Columbus for nearly 40 years before retiring.

As a hobby and part-time retirement business, the Wabash native has spent the past two decades helping others keep track of their time by repairing mechanical wall and mantle clocks.

“It gives me an activity to keep my mind sharp,” said Kaiser, owner of Kaiser Clock Repair Co. in Columbus.

Kaiser needed a clock repaired in 2000 and utilized Gib Henry, a Columbus clock repairman: “When I went to pick it up, I said, ‘This must be a real interesting business.’ He said, ‘Do you want to learn how?’”

Open to the idea, Henry gave Kaiser a clock movement that had been in his junk box, and the mechanically-oriented man got it to work.

Kaiser had begun exploring potential retirement occupations while still working full time as a chimney sweep, so decided to take some classes on the side in clock repair.

Then, when inside a customer’s home to clean the chimney, Kaiser would notice a clock on the mantle that wasn’t running and ask if the owner wanted to get it repaired.

“In sales, you sell yourself and the product comes along with it,” Kaiser said.

That was something he learned from his late father, John R. Kaiser, who held a variety of sales jobs over his career. His knack for selling kept food on the table for the family of 13.

Not nearly as gregarious as his father, Peter Kaiser tapped into technology to build his upstart chimney-cleaning company.

He computerized the business in 1982 with the help of a Commodore 64, introduced in January of that year with 64 kilobytes of memory. The most popular home computer of its time, Kaiser used the Commodore to track his chimney sweep customers and send out reminders about annual service visits.

The first year after purchasing the computer, Kaiser doubled his sales; the second year, sales tripled.

This time around, Kaiser isn’t focused on building his clock-repair business, however. He is currently working on three clocks in his basement workshop — utilizing basic hand tools, a spring winder, and an ultrasonic tank to clean clock parts — and that’s enough volume to suit him.

“It’s a retirement business and I intend to stay retired,” Kaiser said.

Years earlier, a handful of clock repair shops operated in Columbus. You may still discover some of their names online when doing Internet searches for clock repair, but phone numbers have since been disconnected, leaving Kaiser as the only local option.

He does not repair watches, cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks or anniversary clocks, which can run up to 400 days with a single winding. Customers needing repair of those types of timepieces are referred to shops located within driving distance — in Bloomington, Greenwood or rural Decatur County, for example.

Since the 1980s, the number of digital time pieces manufactured has exceeded the volume of mechanical clocks, reducing the need for skilled craftsmen who understand the workings of gears, main springs and movements.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last year reported an estimated 2,430 watch and clock repairers nationally, with the largest concentrations of them in New York, California and Florida.

When a customer calls about repairing an antique clock, one of the first questions a repair professional will ask is its brand.

“People will tell you their clock’s name is Tempus Fugit,” a phrase stamped on many clock dials, Kaiser said.

However, Tempus Fugit is not a clockmaker. Rather, it is a Latin phrase for “time flies.”

One of the temptations of being in the clock business is discovering models that are just too enticing to resist buying, Kaiser said.

As proof, the living room of Kaiser’s northside Columbus ranch home contains an antique grandmother clock. At 5 feet tall or less, these ornate models are shorter than grandfather clocks, which are typically 6 to 8 feet tall.

Kaiser’s kitchen holds another favorite time piece, a ship’s bell mounted on a mantle.

Familiar with them from his four-year stint in the U.S. Navy, the clock’s chiming sequence coincides with a four-hour watch assignment aboard a military ship. The start of each assignment is 8 bells, marked at noon, 4 p.m., 8 p.m., midnight, 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. Once a new watch starts, the bell strikes once after the first half hour, then an additional time each subsequent 30 minutes.

When he’s not working on clocks, Kaiser spends the biggest share of his retirement time reading. He likes to delve into fiction — especially cowboy books, science fiction and mysteries — or biographies.

He just purchased one of the books from “The Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series” by Sue Grafton in hardcover, although he is more apt to read books on his electronic Kindle device.

Kaiser is currently reading biographies on children’s book author E.B. White and biologist E.O. Wilson and a mystery stories anthology.

As a youth, his late mother Frances Kaiser taught him “learning is a gift.”

So when he reads a book on his Kindle and comes across a word he is not familiar with, he can easily call up one of the device’s built-in dictionaries for a definition and then continue with the story and new-found knowledge.

Life partner and best friend Alice Lamb once asked Kaiser how he would describe his purpose in life.

“Live the best life I can and contribute to the happiness of my fellow man,” Kaiser said. “That’s why I do Meals on Wheels.”

He has been a driver for the Meals on Wheels program in Bartholomew County since 2018.

“It fits my personality well,” said Kaiser, describing himself as quiet by nature — more apt to listen than talk.

Kaiser takes meals to Meals on Wheels clients about 10 times a month over the lunch hour.

Becky Cutsinger, coordinator of the Bartholomew County Meals on Wheels program, called Kaiser her most dependable volunteer.

“Anytime I’ve asked him to pick up an extra route, or needed help, he’s never said no,” Cutsinger said. “He’s a great guy.”

And besides that, he has the time.

About Peter E. Kaiser 

Age: 74 (turns 75 on Jan. 27)

Family: Was married for 22 years to Peggy Kaiser, who died of cancer in 2007 at age 61; life partner of 11 years, Alice Lamb; adult stepchildren Jill Sharp and Christy Jerman of Columbus.

Residence: Primarily Columbus since the early 1970s, but during that time has also lived for short periods in Edinburgh and North Manchester, Indiana and in Whiteside County, Illinois.

Hometown: Wabash, Indiana.

Education: Wabash High School, 1965; attended Ball State University, studying history and psychology, 1970-1972.

Military service: Yeoman in the U.S. Navy, 1965-1969.

Career: Maintenance, night security, The Commons Mall, 1972-1973; bartender, Columbus Bar, 1973-1974; salesman, Heckman Bindery, North Manchester 1974-1976; appliance technician, Nyffeler Appliance-TV, Columbus, 1976-1980; owner, Pete the Sweep, Columbus 1978-2015, owner, Wild Birds Unlimited, Columbus, 1989-1998; owner, Kaiser Clock Repair Co., since 2000.

Community service: Driver, Meals on Wheels, since 2018; volunteer, Big Brothers Big Sisters, mid-1980s.