Behind the screens
To most people, Russ Whipple doesn’t exist.
They drop off their screens and windows at Frentz and Sons Hardware for repair and they pick them up three days later – good as new. It’s just that simple.
But it’s Russ, 75 years old
and retired, who relieves them of the labor of repair and gives them a clearer
view of the outside world. On this early June day is he working on a group of
more than 50-year-old wooden window frames that he plainly describes as “one big
“We get lots of stuff from the 1950s,” he says. “People should replace these, but they’d rather just repair it. I don’t get it myself.”
The wood in the black-painted frames is rotting with age and each quarter pane of glass is chipped, cracked or broken. As he scrapes out the old hard putty holding the panes in place, the wood gives way to the blade. “These are so old, there is nothing I can do about this. They’re just going to have to live with it.”
That’s Russ – simple, matter of fact and plain-spoken.
With his demeanor, some might mistake him for Max Goldman, Walther Matthau’s character in the movie “Grumpy Old Men.” But at nearly 6-feet-tall, a lanky build and more pronounced hairline, he’s looks nothing like the man who played the curmudgeon opposite Jack Lemmon’s character of John Gustafson in the 1995 movie.
In fact, they’d be way off target, in Mike Frentz’ estimation.
“He’s just one of those likable old guys,” Mike says. “He sounds like a grump, but he isn’t.
"He comes in and does his work well and jokes around. If he jokes with you it means he likes you.”
Anyone who’s been around Frentz Hardware long enough usually figures that out. Russ has been fixing windows and screens for the store for nearly 15 years now.
When he first started working with them, Russ had his own business, Oak Sash and Building Co. out of Berkley.
Born and schooled in Royal Oak as a youth, Russ went to college in South Dakota for two years before he returned home to study Civil Engineering at the University of Detroit. While he was studying at U of D, he had been working in construction to pay his way. Finally, he gave up college to start his own business.
“If you have to work, might as well work for yourself,” he thought.
So he started his own construction company, building homes and businesses around Oakland County, but primarily in the Birmingham and Bloomfield areas. In the latter years of the business, he turned to remodeling and that’s about the time he and Frentz and Sons Hardware started doing business.
He used to come by the store every three days – he’d drop off screens and windows and pick up the ones that needed repairing.
He’s been retired for about five years now and does all the repair work in the back room at the store. Still, you couldn’t have a better set-up.
“He comes in Monday, Wednesday and Friday and stays as long as it takes to get the job done,” Mike says. “He doesn’t tell us what to do and we don’t tell him what to do.”
Usually, it takes about four to five hours to finish his work, but when the warm weather hits, that’s when his days get long. He’ll come in to a pile of 35-40 screens to refit. “Sometimes I’m here forever,” Russ says.
The pile of work this particular day is almost two feet deep with screens and window frames. Once Russ if finished with them, they get stacked in the back in the “ready for pick-up” pile.
“Lot’s of people bring them in and then just forget about them,” Mike says pointing to the stack where some screens date back to the 1990s. “I don’t know how they forget about them, but I won’t throw them out. They might come back some day.”
The wood-framed windows Russ is working on this particular day are what he would politely call a challenge – on a good day.
Working with these puttied window panes takes patience. “It’s quite an art to work with putty,” Mike says. “One thing Russ taught me is that you have to knead it and soften it so it will stick to the window and the wood. Most people just grab it out of the can and slap in on there.”
And so Russ kneads the putty until pliable, applies it to the groove where the window pane and frame meet and then trims off the excess. It’s taken him six hours to finish two frames and he won’t compromise the quality for time.
But still, at this point he’s not looking for a challenge – just a round of golf.
He used to be a scratch golfer. “Now,” he says, “I’m about twelve.” But that’s what this job is good for, he says.
“My wife says it keeps me off the street. I say it pays for my golf.” He doesn’t belong to a country club – it gets boring playing the same old courses all the time. Better to go for some variety. But everyone knows golf takes money. And so he repairs windows and screens.
Russ gets paid by the number of screens or windows he repairs, so he works when he wants and gets paid accordingly. And, he takes all the time off and vacation that he wants – usually when he goes down to South Carolina with his wife to play golf in the winter when things are slow.
“When he’s gone we just tell people, “Sorry, we can’t do your windows until Russ get’s back,’ ” Mike says.
“I’m not sure there’s anyone who does what he does. If he quit, I think we’d have to stop repairing windows and screen.”
It’s that plain and simple.
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Last update: September 26, 2006
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