Right then I became the local sign
painter "self-appointed" in the little town of Avon in central Illinois,
Where I got my first brushes
and paint I don't recall, probably Woolworth's five and ten. I painted every
flat surface I could find -- including some solid walnut table leaves I found
stored in my grandparents' garage -- yes, aluminum and
During high school I lettered some
trucks ($1 per door) and windows, including for a friend who had an office in
the Bodie building in Galesburg, Illinois, which at that time was the home of
Dick Blick Co., one of the first sign supply companies. Mister Blick
heard about me and invited me to visit his store. While there he gave me a
complete set of his Dick Blick Master Stroke Red Sable brushes and patted me
on the shoulder and said "Go to it." Mister Blick was a show card writer and
window trimmer for O. T. Johnson Company, and started his sign supply
business selling Hunt's Speedball Pens.
After high school I tried one semester of college, but didn't enjoy what the
Art Department had to offer. Again, it was Dick Blick who suggested I go to
Schmeby Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a trade school that taught
card writing and window trimming. While I was up there, a restaurant I visited
had the most beautiful girl working there -- and you guessed it, we were
married a few month later, after returning to
We moved to Peoria, Illinois in
1940 and ended up in a union sign shop as an apprentice. I started at $15 per
week, union scale --- journeymen were getting $1.37½ per hour, or $11 a
There was the owner, one journeyman and
myself. I cleaned paint pots, dug holes, and built and coated signs. The
journeyman liked to play cards and he didn't drive, so I would drive him to
the jobs. If there was a pool hall in the neighborhood, he would lay out the
sign and I would paint it while he played cards. This was great practice. At
this time, after about a year as an apprentice I was earning $17.50 per week.
The shop was doing Coca Cola's privilege panels and I would watch how they
One day Coke's sales manager came
in for a rush job. I was in the shop by myself and he asked if I could do the
job. I did my best and my effort must have pleased him: he asked how much I
was making, and offered me $135 per month, including a white Coke
WWII came next, and I ended up in
the Coast Guard in a graphics department at Manhattan Beach
(Brooklyn) Naval Yard, making flip charts for training aids, and lettering
cabin doors, etc., on ships. I worked with a fine gentleman, Howard
Schechterle, who owned Ace Sign Company in Springfield,
Massachusetts. Howard offered me a job when I got out of military, but I
didn't care for the East Coast.
I also met
Lum Savage while in the service -- he owned Savage Signs in
Benton Harbor, Michigan - and Lum also offered me work. I was discharged off
the USS Monticello AP61, a troop transport, and moved my family to Michigan
late in '46 to work for Savage Sign Co. The shop was primarily doing
commercial sign work although Lum had a neon plant.
His tube bender Pete Hicks and
I later moved across the river and started Twin City Sign Service in
Joseph, Michigan. Pete was also an excellent sign painter. We painted signs
and fabricated our own metal cans for neon signs. Our hanging equipment
consisted of a gin pole hanging off the edge of the building and a block and
tackle for lifting -- no boom trucks or ladder trucks; this was
By this time my wife Boots (short for
Arbutus) and I had two little boys, Rudy and Steve. The climate on Lake
Michigan didn't agree with my wife, so I sold out to my partner Pete and
advertised my availability in the Signs of the Times. There was plenty
of work for a country sign painter and we settled on Raton
Sign Company in Raton, New Mexico, far from the Michigan wet. Don
Partridge the owner was one nice man. He had bulletins on the highway from
Colorado Springs up north to Albuquerque, New Mexico south, and from Tepline,
Texas east to Taos, New Mexico west. He also did commercial work plus neon. We
used to go on painting trips, five guys in two trucks -- drive to the farthest
board and work our way home -- usually these trips would be about three days.
This job entailed some pictorial work, and sometimes we'd go downtown and gild
the doctor's window.
After about a year at
Raton I was offered a job at Colorado Springs Neon
Company as a sketch artist. I thought that would be neat, doing bench work
all day. That was a mistake, however; I didn't enjoy the constant sketch work.
I don't recall, but I probably wasn't in Colorado Springs more than six
months. I could have gone back to Raton, but yearned to get back to the
Midwest, nearer to Boots' sisters in Minnesota and my mother in
I advertised again and was offered
a job at Osgood Sign Company in Beloit, Wisconsin, halfway between
Illinois and Minnesota. Housing was difficult to find in Beloit, however, so
my next option was Wabnitz Sign Company in Louisville, Kentucky - a non
union shop paying 25¢ over scale. Lots of window valances and walls
advertising Hallinbach and Buttermann Ice
As it turned out, I got fired from
this job. We were living in Clarksville, Indiana, across the Ohio River from
Louisville. I started thinking of leaving Wabnitz to go into business for
myself in Clarksville in the spring. I bought a new 1949 Chevrolet pickup,
standard cab for $1299 to work out of when I went into business. I made the
mistake of driving it to work and the boss decided he would beat me to the
punch: on the next Friday payday he told me I didn't need to come in Monday.
Believe me, that punctured my balloon.
I tucked my tail and on Monday went to Billy Smith Sign Company there in
Louisville and asked if he needed a country sign painter. He questioned me a
little, asked where I been working and said for me to come in the next day.
Billy gave every new man the lousiest job he had in the shop. If one went out
and did it, (usually a beer sign on a rough brick wall) he had it made. After
the rough wall he put me on a 16' high cutout pictorial beer bottle which I
was able to cheat my way through. In 1951 while I was on a job, another
signwriter came over and introduced himself as Mr.Clay. A few years later, I
read that his son was a boxer for the U.S. in the Olympics. (Yes, he was
Muhammad Ali's father.)
We did lots of work at Churchill Downs, home the Kentucky Derby. Lots of gilding for the wealthy
race horse owners. While in Louisville I met Bill Lange, one of the
finest sign painters I ever met and a hell of a nice guy, who had a one man
shop in the west end of Louisville. He was versatile: he could do a 1½" matte
center gold job on glass, and the next day paint a Colgate logo on a city
water tank. I used to help Bill after hours and
Even with my new truck, I never
did go into business in Indiana. Billy Smith paid over scale and treated me
well. It was an education working for him -- everything was a cut above, and
lots of variety. We had 4' x 36' canvas banners that were strung across the streets to
redirect traffic during Derby Days. Using long benches along one wall, we
would stretch a banner, coat it with a mix of whiting and fish glue and letter
it while it was still damp. The install crew would put them up and remove
them, and then they were sent to a commercial laundry and washed and dried and
put into storage for next year. They weighed a ton -- far removed from the
vinyl banners used today.
After a couple of
years with Billy Smith I was offered a job with General Outdoor Advertising
Company in Peoria, Illinois. This was all bulletin and wall work, but it
was a chance to get back home to where I had started. The job with G.O.A. was
OK -- no pressure, two journeymen working together. The union went on strike,
though (I'd had to join the union in Louisville).
While I was on strike
I was offered a job at Rhodes Display Company in Peoria. Rhodes
manufactured industrial displays for Caterpillar Tractor Co. and Dusty
Rhodes, the owner, had signed the new union contract so there wasn't any
problem with the union.
It sounds strange,
but I was able to execute small letters rather well, even though I just came
from a wall and bulletin shop. This job was a pleasure: Dusty was a great
airbrush artist and a grad from the University of Nebraska with a degree in
engineering and art -- therefore all the displays we produced for Caterpillar
were animated in some manner. Sometimes the crates for the displays cost as
much as the displays themselves, for they had to provide protection during air
More than once Dusty would get an
idea in the middle of a project for how it could be improved, and go off in
that direction; this could be costly and the profit picture would change. He
was probably one of the most talented individuals I ever had the pleasure of
working with, a great talent and a great guy. He even gave me a bonus on the
4th of July one time.
We lost Dusty back in the late 80's. He had retired and moved to Roswell, New Mexico
where he had a son and a daughter.
I should mention that while I was at Rhodes I met Art Reed, a great craftsman
and improviser who could take the nuts & bolts from a discarded Coca
Cola vending machine and use them to make a tiny model Caterpillar tractor
push ground cork "earth" around a plaster mountain. "Hats off" to Art Reed
from Peoria, Illinois.
When we had moved
back to the Peoria area, we located in a community about eight miles out,
halfway between Peoria and the neighboring town of Pekin. My wife would go to
Pekin to shop, a town of about 30,000 easier to get around than Peoria and she
would mention, "What a nice town." I had the urge to go back into business for
myself and I would say, "For two cents I would go over to Pekin and go into
business." (There was only one sign painter operating in Pekin at that
Finally, I guess, my wife had given
me as much as $10.00, two cents at a time. One day I came home and she said,
"I rented you a shop in Pekin." It was a little 24 x 24 building for $25.00
per month. That was the start of Johnny Berg Signs, Pekin, Illinois.
Early on I was able to get the Borden Ice Cream work: trucks, site signs,
banners, all types of commercial work. I didn't say no to anyone. It might be
a hand cut screen print job, whatever. I had eight bulletins on lease and
business took off.
Business got too good, but I was fortunate to
hire a young man, Bob Kronke, a Korea Vet who was good help and very
dependable as well as sober. After the business started I made the mistake of
relocating my shop so it was attached to our home. I guess I wasn't a very
good operator because customers were coming by at 10 o'clock at night, Borden
salesman calling at 6 am, and I was spending evenings making patterns, etc.,
getting ready for the next day. Boots was taking care of office books, taxes,
chasing material and being a great mom to a couple of teenagers. But Kronke
decided he had enough of cold Illinois winters and decided to go to Tucson,
Arizona. After that I was getting help from the Peoria
I advertised in Signs of Times
for help, and chose to investigate a gentleman, Arthur Lewis then in Canada
who was from England and needed employment to enter the U.S. Arthur and I
compromised on his transportation costs to check us out. He was a great sign
painter, having been trained in England -- but I found that he could not work
and talk, and he loved to talk. . . .
I was getting tired, Boots was getting tired and the advertising director for
American Distilling was negotiating to purchase Rhodes Displays and go
international with the display company. He was looking for help and someone
suggested he talk to me. During our discussion I asked what I should do with
my business if I was to go back to work for Rhodes. He said he would buy
Johnny Berg Signs.
I spent about six months
at Rhodes, but what used to come easy was now a struggle, and the end product
I was producing wasn't up to my standards. Finally, frustrated, I quit. The
kids were in college - it must have been about 1960. And Boots and I took a
trip to Arizona. While in Arizona I found out I had glaucoma, and my eyes were
the culprit that was affecting my work.
I got my eyes straightened out and back in Peoria went to work for Hardin
Sign Company. That's where Crazy Jack Wills and I crossed paths.
Jack was in his early stages and an excellent student, and has turned out to
be a great sign painter - pin striper and
While working at Hardin's I think
I painted the largest one gold leaf letter I have seen. It was a large "U"
located on a large panel above the transom of a bank entrance about 70 miles
from the shop. All doors at the entrance with hours on them on the transom
were large letters: Union Savings Bank, single gild with black outline. Above
that was a large panel with this large U. I don't think I'm exaggerating when
I say it was probably 60" wide by 24" high. Black outline,
burnished gold outline lower 1/3 black, and varnish matt center for the upper
two thirds, matt center varnish, varnish clouded with a small amount of
powdered litharge and scrubbed with end of a quill handle. Single
My wife and I had been visiting warmer
climates on our vacations, particularly Florida and Arizona. I had become
acquainted with sign shops in both areas -- Bob Nichols in Ocala, Florida
and Paul Millet in Mesa, Arizona. I always took my kit on these trips
and after a few days of acting like a tourist I would act as a guest artist in
these shops and work a few days.
With our sons in college, there was no reason for my wife and me to stay in a cold
climate, so we moved to Mesa, Arizona in 1973. I had a job before we
I was 50 years old, took the
contractor's test, posted the necessary bonds and thought I would go into
business. It was during this period I met Von Dutch in Tempe,
In Mesa not much excitement
happened sign-wise; I never did go back into business, spent the next 12 yrs
working in Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix. I retired from sign writing at age 62 and
my wife and I ended up dealing in Native American Arts
& Crafts, primarily Navajo, Hopi and Zuni Indian jewelry. We traveled in a
motor home and worked various shows.
Our home has been in Mesa, Arizona since 1973 and three years ago we found a small
place in Eugene, Oregon where we summer. We have a son, daughter-in-law, two
granddaughters and three great-grandsons in the Eugene area. Here is where I
met my friend Vance Galliher, a top-notch gold leaf artist.
I'm not a stranger to the vinyl sign
business, although it came upon the scene about the time I was retiring.
I could bore you with "interesting" stories
that happened in my travels, but I think I've said enough. There are a few
items for the Guinness book, though: the highest I ever worked on swing stage
was nine stories, I've also swung my butt in a bosun's chair, and lettered the
bottom of an (empty) swimming pool. . . .
Most of the guys I worked
with are no longer around: Dusty Rhodes, Bill Lange, Dick
Blick, Charles Eberhardt, Pete Hicks, Bill Boley, Toby Fitzgerald
-- believe me, there were a hell of a lot of good sign painters out there that
one never hears of.
Our sons are successful, one is an architect in Eugene and one teaches in the Math Department at Hawaii
Pacific University in Honolulu.
My wife Boots has been a marvelous partner, mother and friend for over 60 years. It's been a hell of a ride; I've made a lot of mistakes over my years, but if I had another chance I would do it again.
Best wishes and thanks for hearing me out.
34120 Del Monte Ave
Eugene, OR. 97405