‘Signmaster’ put his heart out for all to see

Published 5:57 pm Saturday, November 8, 2008

The fate was hung over my head many times, like a constant guillotine of letters and words. And it was always said in the same tone.

“Boy, don’t make me put you on the sign,” the man on the other end of the phone said in a gruff voice.

I didn’t know the “Signmaster” at that time. I didn’t know “K.C.” Joe Coburn. But I am sure am glad I got the chance to.

Email newsletter signup

Coburn, a barrel of a man who appeared to be a strange mixture of Santa Claus and Grizzly Adams, passed away last week after an extended illness. He was 65.

Joe made his living running K.C. Joe’s Pennzoil on the corner of Sixth Street and Park Avenue. He made his legend with his gregarious personality and his use of plastic letters on a commercial sign that served as his voice in the community.

And what a thunderous voice it was.

“Joe was a great family man and a friend to many in the community,” said longtime friend Bob Vaughn. “Because of the comments on his business sign, Joe will forever be remembered as the ‘Signmaster.’ I will truly miss him.”

The Kentucky native who called Deering home got started in the 1990s and was amazed at the buzz created by his social commentary.

Over the years, Coburn took about everyone to task when they needed it and offered praise when it was deserved.

From birthday wishes to social commentary, Coburn used his signs as his voice.

Ask him what his favorite was and he would give that deep chuckle and tell you there were too many good ones to choose from.

He kept a book of some of his favorites.

For Vaughn, the first one may have been the best.

“Welcome to Mexico. Don’t drink the water,” it said as a commentary about the state of affairs in the city shortly after a new water plant was built.

Another one he got a lot of attention for may have been a portent of things to come.

In July 2000, Joe’s sign stated, “RVHS’ problems seem to be too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Is this Custer’s last stand?”

The hospital closed its doors the next year.

All his friends and family will miss Joe’s sense of humor and his large heart. The entire community will miss the signs that he packed up last year when he became too ill to keep running the business.

But I have a feeling that somewhere up above, Joe was just handed a whole new box of letters.

Maybe they are stars in the night. Maybe they are the clouds themselves. Now Joe has the whole sky as his sign canvas.

Joe said something to me in 2004 that couldn’t be more fitting.

“Once people meet me, they don’t forget me,” he said with a laugh and smile. “I like to make a lasting impression.”

Don’t worry Joe, you did.