At 96, repairman Holmes has it all sewn up when it comes to being in demand

2022-06-18 07:33:47 By : Ms. Vicky Fang

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Tom Holmes shows off the garage of his South Jacksonville home.

Tom Holmes, 96, repairs industrial sewing machines.  

Tom Holmes of South Jacksonville is in demand.

Holmes repairs industrial sewing machines, the type used by tailors at such suit-making businesses as Men's Wearhouse. He routinely is called to work on machines in Springfield, Decatur, Champaign, Edwardsville, Peoria and St. Louis. 

Holmes gets $65 an hour and mileage reimbursement for his work, though he soon may have to raise his rates because of gasoline prices. His truck and tools are ready to go at a moment’s notice. 

Did we mention that Tom Holmes is 96 years old?

“I’m still busy and I feel good,” Holmes said. “I don’t want to sit down and watch the boob tube and do nothing.”

Holmes was born in the Morgan County community of Prentice and worked on the family farm until he shipped off with the Army during World War II. He saw combat in New Guinea and the Philippines. Holmes contracted malaria while serving in the Pacific, which affected his ability to perform the heavy, hot farm work he had left at home. So, when Holmes returned to the United States in 1946, he started looking for work in nearby Jacksonville.

Holmes was hired by J. Capps & Sons clothing manufacturers in 1947 as a shipping clerk. It wasn’t long before an opening came up for a mechanic at the factory, and Holmes’ lifelong career of working on industrial sewing machines began.

“I learned how to be a mechanic the hard way at Capps. When I took a break, the supervisors would come in and sabotage one of the machines in the shop and then I would have to fix it,” Holmes said. “That’s how I learned. That was the best way on earth. You could read the repair book, we called it the Bible, but tearing a machine apart is still the best way to learn.”   Holmes repaired and maintained the Capps factory’s sewing, cutting and spreading machines and quickly gained a reputation as the “go-to” guy when something went wrong. He even got the grudging admiration of the supervisors, who “were very particular,” Holmes said. 

“I enjoyed it. It’s a challenge, something different; there’s always something new all of the time,” Holmes said. “I never thought of it at the time, but we mechanics were keeping that factory running.”

Sometimes the women working on the Capps factory floor needed some repair work of their own when fingers or hair would become caught in the machines. 

“When the girls ran the needle through their fingers, we used to go and squeeze their finger, take the pliers and pull the needle out,” Holmes said, "but the insurance company stopped us because sometimes the needle would break and we couldn’t tell if we got it all out or not.”

“When you used a machine, if you had long hair, you were supposed to wear a hair net,” Holmes said. “But sometimes when they stood up and bent over, their hair would get caught in the belt or pulley. The first thing everybody would do is holler, ‘Mechanic! Mechanic!’”

Separating hair and machine could involve cutting the hair or, if the woman objected to that, the machine would be shut down and the belts and pulleys manipulated until the hair came free, Holmes said.     Homes and his wife, Mildred, who worked as a sleeve setter at Capps, left Jacksonville in 1961 to work for a much larger clothing factory in California. But when Holmes came back several years later to visit Jacksonville, the Capps factory tried to lure him back.

“When they heard Tom Holmes had come back, they were either going to find me on the golf course or they would find me playing cards,” Holmes said. “They found me at the golf course and the foreman said Capps wanted me to come back and talk to them.”

“I thought, 'I don’t think so.' I had a good job in California that I liked, I was doing the same thing out there for a lot bigger operation,” Holmes said. “So I set my wages and my demands up high and told them if I was to come back, it would be for a one-year contract and they had to provide me one or two men that I could train to do the job.”

Capps accepted Holmes’ terms and he went back to work in Jacksonville for a year. At the end of that term, when Capps did not fulfill its promise to provide trainees, Tom and Mildred Holmes went back to the factory in California, where they both worked another 20 years until retirement.

Holmes did not want to be idle during retirement. After moving back to the Jacksonville area, Holmes continued to repair industrial sewing machines on his own, using “no special tools, just good screwdrivers and my brain, which is the best tool right there,” he said.    Holmes was at the Springfield Men's Wearhouse store twice in May to work on machines the store’s tailors had broken. He prefers to work in places where he can drive there and back in one day, including St. Louis, which “I don’t like, but I go there,” Holmes said.

Holmes’ advice for young people searching for a career is “find the work you want to do and stay with it,” he said. “If you don’t make as much money as the other fella doing something else, don’t worry about it, you’ll get there.”

“I’ve got a job I like and I’m busy all the time. It makes me feel good to be in demand at 96 years of age,” Holmes said. “I’ll keep doing it until the good Lord stops me.” 

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