Veterans Watchmaker Initiative trains injured American military vets for freeApr 09, 2021 12:38PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Sam Cannan, a retired, Baltimore cop, has faced some tough situations as a police officer—and he has the scars to prove it. These days, his challenges are of a different nature, but no less daunting. Cannan, a Swiss-trained watchmaker, is the founder of Veterans Watchmaker Initiative (VWI), a world-class watchmaking school at 307 6th Street in Odessa, Del.
The unadorned exterior (formerly an EMT station) belies the amazingly sophisticated accomplishments that happen inside this smallish compound which houses expensive and complex equipment used to work on watches with a micro precision that seems almost invisible to the naked eye. Many of the watch parts are so tiny, they look like crumbs in your hand.
Dave Skocik, who works closely with Cannan, explained that the idea of training disabled vets is based on the post-World War II outreach of the Bulova Watch Company in New York. As Skocik explained in a memo, “It was borne of gratitude for the sacrifices of injured American veterans. These skills allowed them to support themselves and their families despite their injuries. Some worked into their 90s.”
Skocik, a VWI board member, is also president of PR Delaware, as well as the Delaware Veterans Coalition. He teaches communication courses at Delaware State University and has a masters degree in communications and public relations from Temple University.
Then there’s Mike Wipf, whose presence at VWI is constant. Wipf, whose day job is mechanic at the Delaware Department of Transportation, is also a pipe welder and automotive repairman. He has gone above and beyond in his service to VWI. Wipf has donated endless weekends and other free time to projects such as disassembling and bringing two modular buildings from Pennsylvania to Delaware. He built the handicap railing and ramp at the school. Wipf has helped refurbish the interior of the VWI building into state-of-the-art classrooms.
When it comes to supporting veterans, Cannan makes it clear his commitment is total and personal. Tuition, room and board are all waived in recognition of the students’ faithful service to the nation. “No one makes a salary here. Everybody works for free,” Cannan explained. “No one is paid a nickel, including me. Everybody is a volunteer.”
The miniature nature of many of the parts is actually a positive factor in dealing with the P.T.S.D that affects some of the vets. “When you’re suffering P.T.S.D, the world closes in on you,” said Cannan. “The cure is focusing in on that small part, the world goes away and you can sit there all day…work with pain and anything…These are guys who got lost in the system. This is a second chance for them.”
Cannan related one of the connections that adds the human element to the technical accomplishments. “A student lived in two rooms in Delaware. He was in a coma for 7 ½ weeks. I had to talk him in to coming to school. He was courted by the vice president of one of the largest jewelry chains in the world. He’s livin’ the dream.”
Another example of how things can turn around for VWI students involved a marine. “He came here and didn’t talk. He sat in the corner for his whole course. He did get better in the end. The HR people wrote me from NASA looking for someone with a high technical skill level…a watchmaker with machinist skills. I gave him the marine’s information, they tested him, and he was offered the job, got the salary he wanted, but decided to stay here.”
Although every effort is made to ensure program acceptance, students are pre-tested, “They have to do some written things. You have to have a high school diploma. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not easy either. It’s all about hand dexterity. Once you get that, you can do this stuff.”
The students actually have to build a mechanical watch as one of the requirements.
As Cannan led the way through the different rooms, he mentioned that much (if not most) of the equipment has been donated. “These lights come from a German company, by way of Illinois. We have two of these lathes. I know the man who makes them in Switzerland,” he explained.
A lazar-welder was donated by a company in New York ‘This little infra-red oven came from a company in Germany,” Cannan said. “It’s highly specialized stuff. This is the classroom we started in. It was a two-bay ambulance garage. One of our biggest donors is George Washington University. Every lab cabinet you see in there, the carpet you’re walking on, the showcases, all donated by GW. They’ve been very very good to us.”
Because of its accomplishments and veteran support, VWI has a worldwide profile that just might surprise you.
“People in backwater Odessa, from as far away as Katmandu. Nepal, Bangkok, Thailand, all over New York, California…I usually have between 300 and 400 people waiting,” he explained. “I have the next class ready to go.”
Following the initial testing, the six-week-quartz course is next. That’s the one with a lot of pressure.
“I can see whether they can handle that type of stress, and if they can, they’re invited back for the 16-month course,” he explained.
In such a finely-tuned atmosphere of specific dimensions and peak permutations, Cannan is most impressed with one thing when it comes to student attributes – passion. “ I look for passion, if you really want to do this. If you do that, I can teach you.”
As mentioned earlier, there is a rich history that runs through VWI, and it all started with the Bulova Watch Company. Cannan’s office is full of interesting artifacts and documents that chronicle the development.
“This is an original bench from the original Bulova school,” he said. “Joseph and Arde (his son) built the company.”
Cannan proudly brought out one of his most prized possessions.
“This is an original program from the dedication of the school in 1944 in Woodside, New York. I haven’t even opened it yet because I haven’t figured out how I’m going to present it. These just don’t exist.”
Also in the mix were various press releases.
“This happens to be General Omar Bradley, who was actually chairman of the board of Bulova for a few years. And these are some of the original military Bulova watches. And this is a commemorative for the ones you see in the showcase. And here’s what makes this special: Bulova produced these with our logo on them. They sell for $400 and we get 15 percent on each.”
On this day, there was lots of buzz around the premises, partially due to the fact that VWI was hosting some media folks for the ribbon-cutting of the recently completed Vortic building. Special guests included RT Custer, president of the Vortic Watch Company, a high-end wristwatch, engineering and manufacturing group based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Quoting from Skocik’s memo, “The inspiration lies in pairing classic watchmaking techniques and traditions with innovative, modern technology.” Like so many on the long list of supporters, Vortic has been instrumental in facilitating the success of VWI, making multiple and substantial contributions to the school because of a strong belief in its mission.
At the ceremony, Cannan provided some more details about the property development. “New Castle County leased the school building to us for one dollar a year. Then we worked with M&T Bank to purchase another building on the adjacent land. The structure you’ll see on the other side was the original blacksmith’s home in the 1800s. He was the blacksmith for the town of Odessa. With the money from M&T, VWI purchased the lot and the house on it.”
Custer gave Cannan for VWI an initial donation of $25,000 to build the service center on that property, starting the project. Custer wanted to launch a new watch and he put up another $50,000 to finish it. “And that’s why we named the building after Vorric.”
A quote from the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative website is indicative of how the whole concept can transform a veteran’s trajectory and provide a feeling of confidence and competence that can and does drastically improve quality of life. From a former student: “This is an above-all comparable program to the top watchmaker schools that prepare students for high-level craftsmanship, professional conduct and skills that are no longer taught at modern watchmaking schools, making the graduates top-tier choices for luxury-brand companies. Being a graduate student, I was able to enter employment with confidence, knowledge and ability to complete services as any other watchmaker. The greatest notable part of the school is that it is a large family of people from many different backgrounds. The school now represents ground zero for my new life, many future watchmakers, and will always be a place to call home.”
From guidestar.org, which provides up-to-date, non-profit data: “The Veterans Watchmaker Initiative …is the only school of its kind in the United States. The skill set that the students develop will provide them with ‘Dignity of Purpose’ and a professional living for the rest of their lives.”
307 Sixth Street Odessa,
PO Box 329
Little Creek, Delaware 19961
email: [email protected]
Odessa Center for Horological Excellence
M-F 8:30 – 4:30