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THE OUTDOORS : POP HEART : Paul Weber, 93, Has Made Thousands of Hot Rods and Given Them Away to Youths : Business Opport. 4100

Times Staff Writer

FISHING Rod Bldg bus.-Custom Material & equip. Will teach if necessary. Good retirement business. 213/665-1635

How difficult it must have been for Pop Weber to place the simple ad.

Can four lines in The Times classifieds tell how a man who creates fine things with his hands feels when he must surrender his craft to advancing years, or of the happiness he has brought so many fishermen, or how many young lives he might have turned in the right direction?

In his 93rd year, is that all there is?

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For a quarter-century, since he retired from what he calls his “first career” as a mechanical engineer, Weber has built, repaired and restored fishing rods in a shop converted from the garage behind his modest home on North Normandie Avenue in Los Angeles, alongside the Hollywood Freeway. In an area tainted by gang graffiti and urban blight, Pop’s place offered a window on a brighter world.

In his golden years, he figures, he has worked on 10,000 or 12,000 rods in that shop and has maybe broken even, financially. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been rewarding. He has given away between 1,600 and 1,700 to youngsters through the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Big Brothers, schools and the Probation Department. Read a few letters from his files, some dating to 1964:

Dear Mr. Weber,

Thank you very much for the fishing rod. I’ve never had one of my own.

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And:

Dear Pop

... I went fishing from the pier and I caught two fish.

And, from a nun at a local parochial school:

The first time I tried the rod I caught a big fish.

Rewards? More than he ever hoped for.

His real name is Paul.

“They all call me Pop,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “and I like it.

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“I made pretty good money when I was working, so I didn’t really need this for income. I just needed it for activity. I couldn’t have come up with anything better as a way to spend my retirement years.”

Most of the rods given to kids were restored from discards donated by fishing clubs.

“I don’t give them to people who can afford to buy them,” Weber said.

But his prices are bargains--$75 or $80 for the best “Webercraft” rods, as low as $25 for others.

For his paying customers, Weber sets his prices by a basic rule of thumb.

“Here’s how I arrive at that,” he said. “If I charge $80 for a rod, that means there’s $40 of material in it. I get the material all together and then I double it, which seems fair enough to me. That will include my pay for wrapping the guides on. I can’t compete with the big stores, so I don’t try.”

Weber has it backward. Anyone can sell a rod off a rack, but a fisherman suffers deep sorrow when his favorite rod wears out, and great joy when someone such as Weber brings it back to life.

“A part of my pay is when a man comes back to pick up his rod and says, ‘Is that my rod?’ ” Weber said. “They can’t believe what can be done with an old rod.”

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Weber’s strong, steady hands have worked wonders. For a restoration, he’ll strip a rod bare, rewrap the line guides, replace parts as needed and refinish it to showcase condition. He follows a similar procedure when he builds new rods from fiberglass blanks. The average job takes seven or eight hours.

He has built all kinds of rods but most have been for saltwater fishing “because we’re living on the ocean,” he said.

Until recently, fishing was Pop’s passion.

“I’ve had to cut down on the fishing,” he said. “Used to go every other Monday with a group of five or six friends. Anywhere up and down the coast. You name (the boat), we’ve been on it. But my wife is not in too good a health, and her mother is living with us. She’s 98.”

And now, he has found, he can’t build rods anymore. Fifteen years ago Weber, who earned his engineering degree from Purdue University in 1918, designed and built an electric rod-wrapping machine that turns the rod as the fine thread rolls off a spool to secure the line guides. It even has a reverse, in case the thread wraps over itself.

“You can imagine following one thread right across, and if I can’t separate those threads with my eyes I’m in trouble,” Weber said.

Recently, despite using a special magnifying lens attached to his spectacles, Weber realized the lines were starting to run together before his 93-year-old eyes.

As a visitor enters Pop Weber’s shop, there is an aroma of glue and a sense of order. He can open any one of a hundred little drawers and find just the part he wants.

He calls rod-building his “third career,” after nearly a half-century working in many of the world’s exotic places designing machine tools for air bases and power plants. He met his third and current wife in Casablanca.

“Eight, 10 years before I retired, I thought, ‘What am I gonna do? I can’t just sit around and watch television all day long.’

“I’m a dedicated fisherman. Always have been. The first thing I did was to buy a charter boat. I ran it one year and lost money.”

That, briefly, was his second career.

“After I sold the boat, I was on a boat out of one of the other landings and started talking with a fella. I told him about this venture of mine that had failed, and he said, ‘Why don’t you do what I’m doing? I make fishing rods.’ ”

The man, professional rod builder Bill Ballinger, showed Weber how it was done, and before long Pop had as much business as he could handle.

“Most of my business has been people that have come here before or been sent to me. I was in the Yellow Pages for a long time and I had to stop that because I got too much business.” Weber has taught several people how to build rods on their own. He has a video that demonstrates the procedure, step by painstaking step.

He also is adept at handling a rod. One day just last year he caught four 25-pound halibut using one of his rods with 10-pound test line.

Weber hopes to sell his whole operation to a single person--not for the money but to keep the business going. He estimates he has $3,000-$4,000 in parts, plus the rod-wrapping machine and other items around the shop.

“Here’s a rod I’ve refused $300 for,” he said, reaching for an antique high on the wall. “It’s a split bamboo fly rod. It’s older than I am.”

A sign nearby reads: “If you remember those days, you’re an antique, too.”

Pop said: “I feel no regrets. I’ve been well rewarded.”

But then, looking around the shop, he added, wistfully, “If my eyes were all right, I’d run this until I fell over.”


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