There was a demand for it, so Willie Betts added some locksmith services to his hardware store back in the 1970s.
He took some classes, learned it from the ground up and started a career that would take him from the store to many adventures on the road helping all sorts of folks with their locksmith needs.
With an educational background that includes a bachelor’s degree from Delta State University in accounting, Betts first tried his hand at farming, worked at a pallet company in Moorhead and then spent time at Delta Pride Catfish. He then bought the hardware store, Kimbrough Hardware on Front Street, in 1978 from his dad.
“We were there till it burned in 1992 in that big fire downtown,” Betts said.
The needed updates and construction codes made it too much of a project to be feasible. That’s when he decided to continue his locksmith business until he “caught up.” Forty years later, he didn’t catch up but he did decide to retire.
He actually never planned on doing it for very long. The lifelong Indianola native and resident even gave his wife a promise.
“I told my wife when I get caught up, I’d go get a regular job,” Betts said. “And I never caught up.”
He bought an old bread truck and retooled the inside for his business and then once he knew what he needed spacewise and toolwise, he bought a van and fixed it up for his “on the road” job of locksmithing and “I’ve been going ever since.”
His original venture into locksmithing was due to customers coming to his store trying to find someone to fix a lock they had “tore up and wanted another lock but the same key. The only way I could do that was to take their key and send it my wholesaler and they would take it and redo a lock and send it back to me. But half the time it wouldn’t work. Sometimes it may take up to six months to get that.”
After talking to the town’s longtime locksmith, Betts decided to do a shallow dive into the business to help a few customers.
“I was just going to key a few locks when they came in but it became much more than that,” he said.
He didn’t do any car or home locks at the time but almost all of the work was commercial and business.
“Folks didn’t lock their cars back then and you didn’t worry about deadbolts. And no one wasworking on car locks back then. I did a lot of work at Moorhead for the school (MDCC),” he said. “When the store burned, I went to strictly doing that.”
As folks started locking their homes and cars, Betts residential business picked up. So did his hours, his knowledge and his tools.
“Everything changes. Basically, I was on call 24/7,” Betts said. “People will lock their keys in their car in the middle of the night and somebody has to get it open. Now you have more high security locks and electronics. There’s a lot of time involved. You have to keep training and keep up to date. Locks change every year; when you think you have it all down pat, they’ll change it up where you have to get different tools to work on them.”
Throughout his career, Betts’s skills included figuring all types of lock problems for customers as well as carpentry.
“When I first started, a locksmith did whatever was needed – putting door closers on, hanging doors but now it’s more specialized. If somebody kicks a door in, you have to fix it and the wood around it. You have to be able to do a lot of different things. I came from an era where you had to fix everything.”
He noted these days at times, it’s cheaper to replace a lock than to actually fix it.
“Locksmiths are a dying breed. Nowadays you have security professionals who work with the electronic stuff,” he said.
In his four-decade career, Betts also “cracked” safes for customers by feel but his arthritis put an early end to that as well as the influx of electronics in safes. But working on safes was always a scary situation.
“A lot of the older safes, you could feel most of those but you had to take your time. But some of them have stuff up against the door (to fend off would be burglars). I found several of them with tear gas in there. You don’t ever know what’s in there. I never found a safe with dynamite in them. But there have been some with explosives. Tear gas was the biggest thing. If you moved it a little bit, it would crack the tube and you’d have to wait a week or so to let that tear gas dissipate.”
One big change was his stance on smart phones. At first, he resisted and never wanted to use one. But then he saw the light of just how valuable a tool they are for a locksmith.
“I can take a picture of the lock, send it to my wholesaler and they send me the schematic on it and I could figure out what I needed and what parts I needed,” he said.
Betts was an early fan of cell phones though. He even put his cell phone number on his van back when carriers charged outrageous amounts just to make or receive a call. But when riding through Delta towns, Betts’s cell phone would ring up the business before he could get to the city limits.
“They thought I was crazy, putting my phone number on the side of the van,” he said. “But I made money doing that.”
Betts notes that his job is “harder than people think” but knows a good locksmith makes it easy. And a lot of times he had to not unlock a vehicle.
“A lot of times you’d get there and they’d be drinking. You can’t open it because you’re liable for them if they are inebriated. If you think they are impaired in any way, you can’t open the car. A lot of the kids I’d just go pick them up and carry them home.”
He’s also shown up at houses but that can be tricky as well with separations and divorces.
“If somebody was separating and you knew it, you better not change the lock or you’re in the middle of it. Use a little common sense,” he said. “Same thing with a car, check the driver license and make sure it’s their car. You have to be careful. If you don’t know them or know anything about them, I would call the police and find out about them.”
Betts noted it’s been “40 years of having fun. No two locks are ever alike and no two problems are ever alike. You have to think about what you’re doing when you get there.”
He never met a lock that bested him because he knew what would eventually work – perseverance.
“They got more complicated and more sophisticated. You can get any lock open if you have time and you are patient. The biggest problem you have is when someone tries to break into one and they mess it up.”
He’s enjoyed his career as a locksmith but has a bone to pick with those on TV and the big screen who falsely project his chosen occupation.
“They don’t portray it like it really is. You don’t just walk up there and stick something in there and shake it and the door opens. It doesn’t work like that. If they have both hands on the lock and a pinching winch and a pick with it, you know they’re on the right path.”
When asked to think about some challenging situations, the keen-eyed locksmith noted that you had to have selective memory with some clients who were somewhere maybe they shouldn’t have been.
“I’d go open a car or something and the thought was, ‘you have to forget who I am.’ I always tell them, I’ll open the car and when you pay me, I don’t even remember your name. Sometimes it just didn’t need to be told.”
He’s even had a few “no brainer” situations where only one car door was even locked or a window was already down. Those times he pocketed the money and kept the secret as well.
“They feel like an idiot and give me the money and say, ‘don’t tell anyone about this.’ But it’s just one of those things that happen. I always told people that if I ever lock myself out, I’m just breaking a window and not telling anyone what happened.”
He’s had situations where working in the dark was not ideal as snakes were slithering between his legs at a home.
“I just packed up and said I’d come back in the morning when I could see,” Betts said. “It’s always something different and you’re never bored. There’s always a different problem.”
Betts has enjoyed helping folks with their lock problems across the Delta and has turned over his business to Hoffman’s Bonded Locksmith and Security Doors out of Greenwood.