A few years ago, Ron Phaneuf was disassembling the movements of a 300-year-old clock he knew had never been opened before. The owner of Phaneuf Clock Shop, a St. Petersburg institution for more than half a century, had taken apart thousands of clocks. His father had taught him how long ago. • This one, smaller than a grandfather clock and well-made, stood out for its elaborate, hand-scrolled engravings on the inside of brass plates deep within its guts. • Though he had never seen such ornate designs so well-hidden, Mr. Phaneuf knew instantly what it meant: Another clockmaker was saying hello. The message had taken 300 years to reach him.
Times have changed. Now old clocks and the people who work on them are rapidly receding into the past, not unlike the fate of grand pipe organs.
Now a guardian of clock craftsmanship is gone, too. Mr. Phaneuf, one of the last clockmakers of his kind in the area, died Wednesday at home. He was 58. He had suffered a heart attack while sleeping, his family said.
His wife, who handled sales and bookkeeping in the shop, was with Mr. Phaneuf when he discovered the other clockmaker's message-in-a-bottle across time.
"He said, 'Oh, my God, look at this,' " said Pat Phaneuf, 60. "All of these creative, beautiful swirls, like a piece of art, and the only person who would be able to see it and appreciate it would be another clockmaker.
"We were just floored."
His father, Canadian-born Robert Phaneuf, founded the shop in 1960 at Central Avenue and 70th Street. He moved twice before settling in 1969 at 4047 Fourth St. N. The elder Phaneuf held a stopwatch and challenged his son to take clocks apart and put them back together.
His son graduated from Northeast High School, then worked for a land surveyor before rejoining his father in the clock shop. Mr. Phaneuf took over the shop in 1979, a few months before his father's death. He enjoyed working on old, well-made clocks with thick plates that kept perfect time for scores of years. When they did eventually need a tuneup, he replaced cracked springs, cleaned away gunk and used bronze bushings because they were stronger than brass.
"He would polish all the moving parts, ream all the holes," his wife said. "He would clean it, oil it, test it, time it, regulate it. He would polish them up so they were all shiny and rewind them, so the clock would have the power that it had when it was brand new. So it took another hundred years to wear through again."
They married in 1983 and handled different parts of the business. She worked sales and kept the books. Her husband scrutinized grandfather clocks, steeple clocks and banjo clocks (nicknamed for their shape), clocks with hand-painted numbers and brand new clocks. Bella or Buddy, his Doberman and pit bull mixed-breeds, were usually wandering nearby or curled up for a nap.
From time to time, he glanced through a window decorated with his name and "2nd Generation Clockmaker" to see any of scores of friends from a lifetime as a St. Petersburg native. That was always enough to bring the normally quiet shop owner onto the floor for a chat.
At home, Mr. Phaneuf enjoyed military history — the History Channel was always on — and football. He cultivated his garden and bounced his boat across the bay.
He had been looking to do more of the same in retirement. On Wednesday, Pat discovered her husband unresponsive in bed. An autopsy revealed a heart attack, she said.
"It was horrible, absolutely horrible."
As she told the story, a friend entered with a vase of daisies. Aloyse Larson and Pat Phaneuf embraced and wept together. Like many other relationships over decades, Larson had started out as a customer of the couple, then became their friend.
Though their business made them a good living and a collection of friends, the decline of the clock industry over the last decades bothered Mr. Phaneuf, his wife said.
"Everything is so, like, digital. People don't even wear watches because they could get the time off their cellphone now," she said.
Without its master craftsman, Phaneuf Clock Shop will close. The inventory will be sold.
Customers with clocks in for repair will get them back, fixed or not.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.