Overstreet, 96, Still Tending to Bentonville Business Like Clockwork
With his 70th birthday only a few days away, retirement plans would seemingly be at the forefront of Don Overstreet’s mind.
That’s kind of hard to do, however, when his 96-year-old father, and co-worker, is feverishly working just feet away.
“That’s no joke,” Don Overstreet said with a laugh.
Ralph Overstreet, who wrote a check for $4,000 to buy the Bentonville jewelry store in 1948, is still going strong as founder of Overstreet’s Jewelry, located on the Bentonville square.
In fact, he’d surely be at the head of the class if there was a One-Hundred Under 100 list of experienced professionals.
He’s in good health, still drives daily, can rattle off important dates as if they were yesterday, and continues to have the focus and attention to detail needed to be an effective watch repairman.
“I like the work,” said Overstreet, who will turn 97 in October. “If you enjoy your work then you look forward to going to work every day. Anytime the store is open I’ll come, and I’ll keep doing that as long as I am able. Right now I’m able, knock on wood.”
Like clockwork, Ralph wakes up each day between 6:00 and 6:45 a.m. at his downtown Bentonville home, just blocks away from the jewelry store.
“I don’t have an alarm clock,” he said.
He’ll drive himself to breakfast – most of the time he’ll eat and socialize at Acropolis Restaurant in Bentonville – and then make his daily visit to the post office before arriving to work shortly before 10 a.m.
Using a small magnifying glass attached to his glasses, Overstreet uses various tools to examine, disassemble, clean and repair many kinds of watches.
Some projects are more time consuming than others, Overstreet said, pointing to a pair of watches sitting in front of him that need new batteries and a good polishing.
“The customer wants these looking like new,” he said. “That’ll take some time.”
And time is something Overstreet has. He’ll go home for lunch each day, watch some mid-day news, read over the daily obituaries in the newspaper and usually take a short nap before returning to the store for a few hours of afternoon work.
“I come back to work when I feel like it,” he said. “It depends on what kind of workload there is.”
TO ELGIN AND BACK
Overstreet’s family lived in Cane Hill — a small community southwest of Fayetteville — when he was born on October 7, 1916.
“I was raised during the worst depression I think this country has ever had,” he said. “I knew the only thing I could see doing to help myself was getting an education.”
Overstreet attended Springdale High School where he ran the quarter-mile for the school’s track team, and later ran the mile for the University of Arkansas track team after he enrolled at UA in 1936.
His family soon moved to Kentucky and Ralph knew he needed to focus on a career path so he could start having an income. His early choices: Automobile mechanic or watch repairman.
“Between the two, an auto mechanic has to be outside in all kinds of weather and a watch maker works inside all the time,” he said. “So I decided to start trying to learn something about repairing watches on my own.”
Overstreet said he started a small watch repair shop in Wilmore, Ky., but at about age 20, he realized he needed a little more training.
“That’s when I talked my uncle, who was a doctor in Louisville, to send me to the Elgin watch school in Elgin, Ill.,” he said.
Overstreet’s uncle agreed and in 1941 Ralph graduated from the school. Between stints in the Navy and time spent in the South Pacific and occupied Japan during World War II, Overstreet was hired to work in the Elgin watch factory.
It was at that time Overstreet married his “first and only love,” Belle Little, who he met a couple of years earlier while briefly living in Farmington.
“I got my first paycheck from the watch factory and came down to Fayetteville and married my sweetheart,” Overstreet said with a smile. “I was pretty sure I was going to marry her as soon as I met her. I was 24, she was 23, and we got married on July 6, 1941.”
Belle, who ended up being a big part of the jewelry store’s success before suffering a stroke, passed away at the age of 90 five years ago.
A few years after marrying Belle, Ralph accepted an offer from a friend to be a watch maker in South Dakota. He worked there for 2½ years when a trip back to Northwest Arkansas so Belle could be bridesmaid in her younger sister’s wedding opened the opportunity for the family to return to the area for good.
“We were in Springdale and I got to asking around if there was a watch repair store in the area for sale and found out there was one in Bentonville,” Ralph said. “In the corner of a movie theater was a watch repair shop and I asked the guy running it if he wanted to sell it and what he wanted for it.”
The answer: $4,000.
“I wrote him a check, he walked out, left everything there and I took over,” Ralph said. “It was Nov. 8, 1948, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Overstreet’s Jewelry sits on one of the prime spots of real estate in all of Northwest Arkansas on the Bentonville square.
“There have been a lot of jewelry stores in Bentonville that have started up and failed,” Ralph said. “We have strong faith and go by the Golden Rule: Treat people like you want to be treated. Bentonville has been good to me. The way Bentonville has grown, we have grown along with it.”
Overstreet credits much of the success to his family.
“We probably wouldn’t have made it if the family hadn’t gotten into it,” he said.
Ralph’s son, Don, has been involved in the store nearly his entire life and is the president of the company. His grandson, Doug, 46, runs the day-to-day operation as the store’s manager.
Don said the store currently employs six full-time and one part-time.
“We’re in a business that has been very sensitive to the economic cycles,” he said. “When there is a downturn, we feel it.”
The business certainly felt the recent recession, its low points probably being in 2008 and 2009, but things have since picked up, Don said.
“Because of our location, we have always had really good foot traffic,” he said. “We have worked hard to have a very good reputation of taking care of people’s jewelry needs and have a high-level repair shop. That part of the business kept us going when the selling part wasn’t going very well.”
Ralph has been asked many times when he’ll finally quit working. His answer never changes.
“I never really think about it,” he said. “This is so much more interesting than sitting around watching TV and that’s about the only alternative that I’ve got.
“This was my hobby. It started off as a hobby and ended up being work.”
Overstreet said he’s tried golf, but “was poor at it,” and once owned a boat before selling it to a family member.
“This is what I want to do,” he said, pointing to his work station.
And that’s just fine with Don, who admitted it’s hard to think of Overstreet’s Jewelry without his dad walking through that door each day.
“He’s just always here and it’s never been any other way,” Don said. “No one has really ever considered anything different. He refers to these watches as his toys and he gets to play with them every day. It’s fun for him. It puts a smile on his face.”
The only thing that seems to be worrying Ralph these days is if he’ll be able to get his driver’s license renewed when it expires — on his 98th birthday.
“He’s a good driver,” Don said. “But he does recognize his limitations. A couple of years ago he told me would finally stop drag racing at stop lights.”
When it comes to repairing watches, however, don’t expect Ralph to stop anytime soon.