It was around Christmastime more than 15 years ago.

A New Jersey husband and wife landed their small plane at a private Charleston airport.

Somehow, they misplaced the keys to the Piper Cub. They were frantic.

Willie D. Gamble, a locksmith with little experience, gets the call. He is a little unsure of himself at first about tackling plane equipment, though he's fiddled with gadgets all his life. Finally, he reassures himself and thinks “it's a lock.”

“I winged it,” he said. In 30 minutes, the problem is solved. He has made a key for the plane and the couple flies home for the holidays.

Locksmiths love happy endings.

The couple was so happy. There was some jumping up and down, Gamble said. “She almost said I was a magician,” he said with a laugh. The couple even sent him a Christmas card.

Gamble said the reaction is typical. People are almost always happy for a locksmith's help.

And Gamble likes helping people, including bringing others into the business.

But the job requires patience. “If you don't have patience, you can forget about it.”

It was that patience and skills such as problem-solving, accuracy, dependability, hand-eye coordination, honesty, and mathematical and mechanical skills that led Gamble to be named South Carolina Locksmith of the Year for 2012.

Helping others

Gamble will quickly tell you the award from the South Carolina Locksmith Association Inc. is great, but it's not why he does his job. The desire to help others is what drives him.

“I put a lot of effort into bringing people into the organization.” He recruits new members and instructors. He teaches locksmithing classes, although he chose not to become a schoolteacher like his parents and two siblings.

As owner of Berkeley Locksmith in Ladson, Gamble helps young people succeed in the business. And it's not about color, he said. His eight employees are of diverse backgrounds.

He encourages them to “learn the ins and outs of the craft,” and continue to educate themselves.

“A computer gives you a tech school at home. We stay on the leading edge of technology,” he said.

But locksmithing is not for everyone, he said. He tells prospective employees to find out whether the business is for them, and if not, go find what they love.

One of his youngest employees, Martinez Pizarro, 20, has been on the job for only three weeks. He has not yet decided whether locksmithing is for him but is ready to find out.

A female worker stayed for a few months but decided the job was not for her.

Gamble loves it, though. An unassuming man, he loves working behind the scenes to get things done.

His biggest reward is a satisfied customer.

Building a business

Gamble saw a locksmith at work in 1988 when he and his parents were in North Carolina to buy furniture after the family home burned down.

The seed was planted. A magazine ad said there was a demand for locksmiths; there was only one locksmith for every 14,000 people.

Gamble took a correspondence course, and “I was absolutely hooked.”

He worked out of his home from 1989 until he decided to open Berkeley Locksmith in 2010.

Gamble has always loved working with tools. After graduating from St. Stephen High School in 1976, he served in the Army for four years, rebuilding diesel engines in Oklahoma and in a “no man's land” in Wildflicken, Germany.

He hated it but apparently it paid off. He owns six mobile locksmith vans, one of which won a “best truck” award for its high-tech capability.

Now he has clients throughout the state, handling commercial, residential and governmental buildings, vehicles, safes, and real estate companies.

Marty Morrow, who with 26 years of locksmithing is one of Gamble's most experienced employees, said Gamble has one of the most well-rounded and complete locksmith shops, with every tool and every resource needed for the job.

Morrow said Gamble pushes his workers to further educate themselves in the trade.

Like Gamble, he also has job satisfaction; people are happy to see a locksmith. That was not always the case in his previous line of work as an auto mechanic, Morrow said. “People were always angry.”

The locksmithing business is requiring workers to become more specialized now. Morrow is a safe and vault technician; Gamble's specialty is automotive.

His store is open six days a week. Otherwise, you will find Gamble fishing, RVing or motorcycling.

As for making any more keys for planes? Not so much.

Reach Assistant Features Editor Shirley A. Greene at 937-5555, or