Signing Off: Veteran ‘sign writer’ will retire after a half-century

Special skills, special man. I truly enjoyed meeting Jim and having the privilege of telling his story.This  article ran on the front page of the Omaha World-Herald on October 26, 2009.

SIGNING OFF – Veteran ‘sign writer’ will retire after a half-century – By Christine Laue WORLD-HERALD 

For more than a half-century, Jim O’Keefe alerted us to blockbuster sales, specials of the week and store closings.His squirrel- and badger-bristle brushes transformed plain panes of glass into brilliant fluorescent messages to Omaha shoppers.You might have seen him toughing out a blizzard or a sizzling 90-degree day, most recently with the white beard he grew to make himself look and feel old enough to retire.Behind the scenes, he’s the husband who never leaves for a 5 a.m. duck-hunting trip without writing his sleeping sweetheart a love note. And the dad who always made the best birthday banners for his children when they were young and “welcome home” signs when they were adults returning from military service.Now family, age and a fading trade are tugging him away from his public canvases of glass.His wife, worried that the 70-year-old still works like the 19-year-old she married, wants to savor her retirement with him. O’Keefe, while in good health, is starting to agree with his wife that climbing ladders at his age isn’t so smart anymore.

And technology is changing his profession, with retailers increasingly choosing computer-generated banners over his freehand creations.

So sometime in the next few months, O’Keefe plans to retire as one of only a few “sign writers” in Omaha.

“It’s kind of strange to tell people you’ve been doing something 50 years, because I don’t even feel like I’m 50 years old,” he said. “The only problem is, technology has overcome me, like the horse and the locomotive. I’m an old horse that is going to go out to pasture.”

Sign writers do all their lettering freehand, whereas sign painters – of which there are many – follow lines or patterns, said O’Keefe’s boss, Ron Dobosz, also a sign writer. Sign writers are rare, and O’Keefe’s tenacity is rarer still, Dobosz said.

“The best thing about him is he’s like a machine that never breaks. If you can picture the Energizer bunny, he keeps going and going and going,” Dobosz said. “It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t feel good, if it’s raining outside, he’s out there with a raincoat and an umbrella.

“It’s rare to find somebody who wants to put that much of themselves into their work.”

O’Keefe credits his father and father-in-law for his work ethic: Be at work 10 minutes before starting time; be the last one to go to lunch and the first one back on the job; think of five things to do to keep busy when there’s down time.

His wife, Karen, retired in 2004 as an administrative technician after 22 years at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

She thought Jim would retire, too.

“He would always say, ‘What am I going to do?’ I said, ‘We’ll find things to do.’ He just kept putting it off and putting it off.”

The recession made it harder, not because the couple needed O’Keefe’s income, but because he feels grateful, almost guilty, to have a job he loves as others struggle to find work, Karen said.

“I think he hates to give up what he worked so hard to attain,” she said. “He doesn’t take it lightly, his skill and the techniques he’s learned over the years, and how the economy is. … He just doesn’t want to let it go.”

About a year ago, he cut back to three days a week. Then about four months ago, to two days a week.

Born in Omaha in 1939, O’Keefe first recognized his artistic talent when he was disqualified from a national art competition in second grade because the judges thought he had traced a waterfall scene. He hadn’t.

A summer program at Joslyn Art Museum, paid for by his Aunt Esther, fostered an appreciation for fine art.

But it was a window display artist, a friend of his father’s, who showed the 12-year-old how to paint the alphabet and opened his eyes to his future profession.

“I thought that was neat as can be,” O’Keefe said. “That really was motivation. He was fun, and I wanted to be like him.”

As a teen, he worked several summers for Union Pacific Railroad, greasing and oiling locomotive cranes in Wyoming. In the evenings, by the light of a kerosene lamp in the boxcar where he slept, O’Keefe practiced painting letters.

He met Karen Thomas in 1955 at a downtown Omaha movie theater, where she had gone with a friend after a boy stood her up. They saw the boy with another girl just five aisles away, so when O’Keefe sat behind her and started flirting, she flirted back, hoping to make the other boy jealous.

Karen and Jim dated through high school and married in 1958, a year after graduation.

O’Keefe took college classes but quit to work in the sign business. After six months at one job, he got his big break. Cronland Signs, which did everything from truck lettering to gold leaf on office window doors, offered him a four-year apprenticeship.

He was “elated,” he said, and worked during the day and took night classes in layout, silk-screening, color combination and alphabets.

He and Karen had five children over the next eight years.

“In the early days it was an austere environment in that little home in south Omaha,” recalled son Jim O’Keefe Jr. of Omaha.

His dad came home every night looking tired. “But he didn’t seem to mind, because it was his passion.”

The senior O’Keefe said he started at $1.15 an hour.

“That was a decent wage,” he said. “We’ve been able to raise five kids and have our home paid for. … It didn’t pay a whole lot, but if you wanted to work the hours, you sure could make enough money.”

After 32 years at Cronland Signs, O’Keefe left for Ron’s Custom Lettering Services Inc., where he has been for the past 20 years.

Dobosz, O’Keefe’s boss, said his timing to retire is perfect.

Demand for hand-painting has dwindled since the 1980s, with the introduction of computers that can lay out, cut and print vinyl signs efficiently and cheaply, said Dobosz, 59. And the recession has reduced sign-writing jobs such as painting prices on windshields at car dealerships.

Jim Sutton, manager of Nova Fitness Equipment in Bellevue, said he prefers the human touch over computer- generated signs.

The sign writer’s pleasant nature was an additional bonus, Sutton said. Even in searing heat, O’Keefe worked with a smile, cooling himself with a little spray bottle, Sutton recalled.

O’Keefe’s secret to enduring the elements is his love of nature, he said.

The avid fisherman and hunter and two-time Nebraska duck-calling champion learned long ago how to dress for frigid weather: three pairs of silk and wool long johns; oversized boots with three pairs of socks; and silk tops, among other layers.

“I love it out there when it’s cold because I don’t have anybody bugging me.”

Young people, even O’Keefe’s 24-year-old grandson who is Dobosz’s apprentice, occasionally express interest in sign writing. O’Keefe tells them what has taken him a couple of decades to accept, he said.

“Computers is where it’s going. My hand skills aren’t going to be sought after as much.

“I’m having a difficult time slowing down,” O’Keefe said. “I haven’t wanted to quit working for five years. But I gotta realize there’s another part of life.”

Caption: Color Photos/2 B&W Photo/1 JAMES R. BURNETT/THE WORLD-HERALD Jim O’Keefe, 70, has witnessed many economic booms and busts in his 50 years of hand-lettering signs, from “Going out of business” on storefront windows to “Manager’s special” on car windshields. Below, he works on a sign on a storefront in the Twin Creek shopping center in Bellevue. JAMES R. BURNETT/THE WORLD-HERALD Veteran sign writer Jim O’Keefe says computerized sign production has taken over much of the work he has done by hand for the past 50-plus years. That is one reason he started planning his retirement.
Edition: Iowa;Metro;Nebraska;Sunrise
Section: News
Page: 01A
Index Terms: Advertising;Retirement
Record Number: 11594375
Copyright (c) 2009 Omaha World Herald
This article is copyright of the Omaha World-Herald and used with permission. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or redistributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald.
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