VILLA GROVE – After a lifetime of selling jewelry for generations of residents in the Villa Grove area, Dale Underwood has decided it is time to retire.
Underwood, 62, said he plans to close Dale's Jewelry in downtown Villa Grove at the end of the year. The wheelchair-bound businessman has been selling watches, rings and other shiny things at the location for the last 39 years.
The Villa Grove man said he will continue to repair jewelry in his shop on South Main Street, but he said it is time for him to get out of the retail business.
Underwood said he might not have been in the jewelry business were it not for a tornado that roared through Douglas County on April 22, 1963, when he was 19 years old.
He was at his rural Murdock home getting ready to eat a pork chop supper with his family when a massive twister swept there from Tuscola on its way to Indiana.
Since the house didn't have a cellar or other shelter, the family hopped into their Ford Galaxy 500.
"We tried to get away from it and didn't make it," he said. "I landed on my head and broke my back, neck and pelvis. The accident left me paralyzed from the waist down."
Underwood was determined to start a new life in spite of his paralysis. He consulted with Tim Nugent of the Division of Rehabilitation Education Services at the University of Illinois to determine what kind of job a person in his condition would be able to do.
"He had a book of all the occupations, what you had to do to qualify and how many dollars you would make in a lifetime," Underwood said. "One of the choices was horology, the art of timekeeping. That really appealed to me."
After taking classes in watch repair and ring sizing, Underwood went to work for Loren Lewis at Lewis Jewelry in Villa Grove.
Three years later, a local dentist, Dr. Bill Jones, bought the store and hired Underwood to work with them on commission.
By 1971, Underwood said he had learned enough to start his own shop, Dale's Jewelry.
"When I first opened, all I had was an empty 6-foot jewelry case," he said with a smile.
In the early days, much of Underwood's business came from railroad employees who turned to the Villa Grove man to inspect and repair their watches.
At the time, there were only three places in Illinois certified to inspect watches for the railroad: stores in Chicago and Salem and Dale's Jewelry.
"If you are in the railroad business, the most important thing is to make sure that your train arrives on time," Underwood said. "The railroaders had to come in to get their watches inspected every year, and if their watches weren't working, I'd sell them new watches."
In addition to customers from Villa Grove, Underwood said that his store draws visitors from Newman, Tuscola, Pesotum, Tolono, Sadorus, Ivesdale, Philo, Homer, Sidney, Broadlands and Allerton.
"We actually have more customers from out of town than in town," he said.
Underwood said the best part of working at a jewelry store is sharing the joys of the small-town customers who walk through his doors, whether it be a timid young man trying to find an engagement ring, an excited young couple shopping for wedding rings or spouses looking for special birthday or anniversary gifts.
"Dale has been an asset to our community," said Villa Grove Mayor Ron Hunt. "He has been involved with the chamber and supported our community through thick and thin. Dale continued to believe in our downtown business community no matter what happened with the economy. It is difficult for businesses in small towns like Villa Grove to compete with the stores in larger communities."
Underwood said that Dale's Jewelry is the last full-service merchandise and repair jewelry shop in Douglas County.
Underwood said he never gave in to the temptation to move his store to a larger community because he never stopped believing in Villa Grove's future.
"The town was doing well, and there was no reason to go anywhere else," he said.
When Underwood isn't ringing up orders for watches, earrings or necklaces, the Villa Grove man moves himself in his wheelchair to his shop in the rear of the store, where he repairs and cleans old jewelry.
One thing that Underwood learned all those years repairing watches is that time marches on.
"I'm just old enough that my shoulders are giving me so much trouble from pushing this wheelchair all the time that the doctors prefer that I close the store," he said. "I've got to have a little bit of rest. But I'll keep doing repairs as long as I'm able."