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NAWCC Past President Gene Bagwell

The legacies of many NAWCC members often sit in rooms or lie with meticulous arrangement in airtight drawers. These legacies are clocks and watches—immaculate, but ultimately unloving, timekeeping artifacts. Former NAWCC president Gene Bagwell’s legacy is one that crisscrosses North America and includes everyone in attendance, in cavernous convention centers, at regionals and conventions. His legacy sleeps in the guest rooms of the homes of his innumerable friends and invites them to stay with him and his wife over the winter holidays in Mississippi. Although he is a prolific collector of clocks, he loves best and remembers most the people he has met.

It all began when David Meyers surprised Gene Bagwell on a warm Saturday afternoon; he had an unusual proposition for that day’s activities: antiquing, specifically for old clocks. Gene and David were neighbors. They worked together wiring the enormous scoreboard for the Mississippi Memorial Stadium. They drove out into the country and knocked on the door of every residence they could find. They inquired about clocks and then they made an offer. The residents were surprised, because nothing like this had ever happened before, but they were friendly nonetheless. Gene came away with a black metal box clock adorned with a lion’s head on each side. He was not fond of the drab metal clock he had purchased. The experience of buying it, however, was a different story.

“I saw some clocks that I had never seen before and I got interested. I continued looking for clocks,” Bagwell said. “Going door to door is something that every member of our NAWCC chapter did. We probably knocked on every door in Mississippi at one time or another.”

Bagwell went out and did it again and again, trading his first clock for a post office clock and acquiring a few more as well. His entire collection of five pieces was small enough to sit on the mantel, but to him, it felt as though he had accumulated the largest collection in the world. He had never heard of another clock collector.

His neighbors were also suitably impressed. They came into his spacious living room, visiting and observing his five-piece collection, and brought along pieces of their own to show—a singular old clock or a working heirloom from their father. A community grew. Sanky L. Blanton, Stanley Carrow, George Overy, and James Lawrence are some of the men who were drawn to see and discuss and socialize under the prominent mantelpiece clocks of Gene Bagwell.

One visitor, Leyland Hurst, a new arrival in town, introduced Bagwell to the idea of the NAWCC. If they could get together ten members, they would qualify as an official chapter. This was a life-changing moment for Bagwell.

Gene Bagwell committed himself to the NAWCC. Not only did he lead the Magnolia chapter that he founded in his hometown, but he traveled, seeking out meetings in other states. In particular, he attended a Texas chapter meeting. His enthusiasm led him all over the country, acquiring new pieces, learning as much as he could, and meeting absolutely everyone that he could. He attributes this momentum to his innate, youthful vigor.          

“I was so active and full of energy that I would take a day or two of vacation and drive to the Philadelphia chapter meeting. I would take a week’s vacation and drive to the national conventions up east. I would drive into Maine and New York and that area. I met a lot of people along the way,” he said. “I was doing this for the fun of it. I never dreamt that I would be president of the NAWCC. It wasn’t on my mind.”

Gene was popular; his dedication to the NAWCC was apparent. His invitation into the organizational politics was inevitable even if he didn’t expect it. First, he was installed as a national director, a post that suited him well. Next, Dr. Warner Bundens informed Gene that he was a candidate of the nominating committee for vice-president. At first he declined, citing his job with Mississippi Power and Light and his side business of organizing antique markets. But finally, after much deliberating and with his wife’s insistence, Gene agreed. He became vice-president under Ward Francillon. A little later he ran unopposed for president.

Although he felt unsure following in Francillon’s footsteps, Gene’s tenure as president is marked by some of the most monumental events in the annals of NAWCC history. Bagwell met challenges and opportunities with sound judgment and the support of his cabinet.

“I selected the best people I knew. The people that would do the best job for the NAWCC. I know people and I think that knowing people is what’s important. I asked dedicated people who knew what they were doing to serve. When I needed something, I knew I could call and rely on them. They never failed me. They made me look good. I won’t say that I did well, but we did.”

Bagwell presided over the NAWCC’s acquisition of a relative bounty of clocks from New York University. These pieces, acquired at no charge, comprise the James Arthur collection, some of which remain on display at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, PA. In 1982 NYU intended to auction off the beautiful clocks of the James Arthur collection, bequeathed by Arthur to NYU. Both The Time Museum of Rockford, IL, and the Smithsonian Institute demonstrated interest in the pieces. With Bagwell’s ascent, attorney and NAWCC member Bob Fox represented the NAWCC’s interests in court. An agreement was reached; the two former institutions gained permission to purchase select pieces while the majority of the collection would reside permanently with the NAWCC for free.

“It was a winning situation. We had this vast collection of clocks from NYU. We had so many that we didn’t even know about everything that we had.”

These clocks would comprise some of the first pieces displayed at the then-under-construction National Watch and Clock Museum. At the last minute, the Smithsonian, for reason of a special exhibit, laid claim to the majestic 13-foot-tall Conical Clock. Bagwell held his ground; he cited that legally the clock had been awarded to them, but the Smithsonian was insistent. Because the Museum opening was about a year away, Bagwell loaned them the enormous piece under the condition that they must finance the expensive cost of transportation. The compromise worked for both parties, and the grand clock’s arrival in Columbia coincided with the Museum’s opening.

Even before assuming a role at its helm, Bagwell influenced the direction of the NAWCC. At a convention in Anaheim, CA,, during his time as a national director, Gene Bagwell made the decisive suggestion to build a museum that could represent their organization. The idea of a museum had been discussed for decades, since Bagwell’s first national convention, he remembers. They talked about it endlessly, but there were many complications, and it never got off the ground. This time, Bagwell stood up; he knew they needed a museum and he knew how they would pay for it, as well.

He directed the Board to gaze out the window to the bustling trading mart located outside. He asked them what they saw; one replied simply that he saw a mart. Bagwell responded that they were looking at the way the museum would be financed. Their dedicated and enthusiastic constituency would build the museum. The vote, with one abstention, was unanimous. The donations began almost immediately.

“I had heard them talk about it so much. It seemed like everyone wanted it but no one was willing to stand up and fight for it. I think everyone was waiting on someone else. So I decided that it should be me to say something.”

Life for Bagwell, as it involves the NAWCC, is one of politics and people, earnest introductions to new friends, and weeks taken off work for cross-country journeys, but of course, life is also about the clocks.

The pillar and scroll clock is Bagwell’s favorite type of clock. His two Eli Terry pillar and scroll clocks rank as some of the most exquisite in his collection. His specialty, compiled through years of study and collection, focuses on Edward Howard clocks. In his living room, all five models of the Edward Howard banjo clock are proudly displayed. He holds a collection of the rarer Edward Howard figure eight clocks, favorites and a specialty; he cites their attractive aesthetics and their generally excellent construction. This is a bit of a contrast to the typical Southern collector taste, which favors a more ornate Victorian-style calendar clock.

“I like so many different kinds of clocks,” he says. “There is no end to my interest in them.”

Gene Bagwell, an NAWCC member since the early 1960s and a venerated elder statesman, has had a vantage—clear as anyone—to witness change within the Association. He has seen presidents come and go and has been one himself. He has observed expansions and renovations and watched membership both decline and rapidly swell. If it is one thing for which he yearns, it is the human closeness members felt in the past. The comprehensive NAWCC roster book, which contained contact information for all members and was furnished to them for free, symbolizes this. It fostered spontaneous social visits and fraternity; it was essential on Bagwell’s numerous road trips.

“Whenever anyone traveled, they kept their roster book with them. When they pulled up in a little country town or a big city, it didn’t matter, they opened up their roster and saw who lived there. We got to know each other that way.”

One of Bagwell’s favorite stories involves a road trip to the uppermost tip of the nation, a social call, exquisite antique clocks, and forging a lifelong friendship. When he was a relatively new member, Bagwell and his wife embarked on a trip to New England. There they met another clock-collecting couple in Hartford, CT, and together they departed for the Massachusetts home of former NAWCC president Dr. Amos Avery. Bagwell had been cautioned that Amos Avery might be rude; as a Southerner with a strict belief in unconditional hospitality, Bagwell was concerned. But Amos was friendly and his wife Betty supplied the visitors with seemingly limitless helpings of her blueberry pie. They all talked about excellent clocks and other things. They ate blueberry pie, finishing a piece and finding it replaced by another. Later, he was informed that the pie was a signal of Betty’s approval of the company and that Amos needed to be polite.

“He was a true New England Yankee and I was a true Southerner. Dr. Avery lived to see this Southern boy become president of the NAWCC. He called to congratulate me. I’ve visited him from time to time.”

Bagwell summarizes himself concisely, saying, “I collect friends…and clocks.” Gene Bagwell’s legacy, ultimately, is not the collection of shapely timber, precise gears, and ornately decorated cases, but sound judgment, an inclusive smile, and an eagerness that traverses the nation’s roadways, always having enough time for his friends. -Lee Dussinger

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