Fencemaker Earl Prince Sr., 88, is photographed behind wrought-iron window… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Earl Prince Sr. sees beauty in bars and bolts, and works at welding to keep himself young.
The 88-year-old Crenshaw district resident has been crafting wrought-iron window bars, security doors, fences and gates for almost three decades — providing protection for his neighbors while trying not to uglify their homes.
"It's a passion," said Prince, a strapping, jovial man with a face nearly free of wrinkles. "When I finish a job and it looks good, I really get a charge out of it."
And he has become a neighborhood celeb of sorts, and he doesn't want to quit.
Wearing a welding helmet and gloves, Prince plies his trade in the backyard machine shop of his three-bedroom Spanish stucco bungalow near Leimert Park. He employs an old arc welding machine, which uses electric current to bend and fuse metal.
His creations include iron fences with pickets, window bars made of steel rods, and security doors with insect screens, built-in lockboxes and the occasional mail slot.
"I do the hearts and 'C' design," said Prince, describing the intricate curly pattern that characterizes his work.
Almost a dozen neighbors on Prince's street, which is marked by manicured lawns, towering palms and mainly single-story bungalows, have benefited from the welder's work.
"All this is his innovation, all this here is his creativity," said neighbor Charles Williams, 60, plucking at the points of the pickets of the 4-foot-wide black gate Prince installed at Williams' home in the 1980s.
"He's the one that's helped keep the neighborhood up," said neighbor Percy Burrell, 80, a musician.
Prince's most recent job was completed only two weeks ago: A 12-foot fence and a 7-foot rolling gate. Arthritis has limited his ability to fulfill jobs that have a tight deadline. Occasionally, the widower is assisted in his work by two or three helpers.
Prince discovered his zeal for welding late in life: in his 60s.
"My early youth plan was to become a mechanical engineer," said the father of three. "That plan was interrupted by the war."
After serving three years in the Army during World War II, Prince earned a degree in business administration from Roosevelt University in his hometown of Chicago. When work as a real estate agent "didn't go so well," he decided to switch to teaching. He enrolled at a Chicago teaching college and received a bachelor's degree in education in 1956.
In 1959, Prince moved his family to Los Angeles and worked as a schoolteacher for 27 years, retiring from Emelita Street Elementary in Encino in 1991.
By that time, Prince had already begun a side career as a locksmith, routinely encountering people who wanted security bars. He learned welding at a trade school and went into business for himself in 1987.
His reputation spread rapidly through word of mouth.
Charles Williams needed a gate. Audrey Reed wanted some exterior banisters. Valerie Thrash needed a security door and window bars.
None of Prince's neighbors, many of them equally spry octogenarians, question why the senior welder — pushing 90 — would still be working.
"So what's wrong with that?" 80-year-old Reed asked defiantly.
Thrash said she wasn't at all surprised by Prince's dedication and stamina.
"I knew his mother," said Thrash, a neighborhood resident since 1965. "It's in his blood."
Prince hails from high-achieving stock.
His father was a chemist who graduated from the University of Illinois in 1916. Prince proudly displayed the crumpled diploma preserved in a glass-less frame. His mother was a trained pianist who attended the Boston Conservatory. Prince's paternal grandfather was a runaway slave who managed to earn a college degree and later opened a general store in Coin, Iowa. His maternal grandfather was a rider for the Pony Express in the 1860s.
Kim Branch-Stewart, an instructor at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, considers her uncle a "good mentor."
"I think we take for granted his age because he is so active and engaged and he has all his faculties," she said. "It's hard not to be motivated when we see Uncle Earl still going so strong."