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Lessons From the Book of John

Aussie signman John Jordan embodied the sign industry

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If mourning in the morning, or

sulking in the afternoon,

Just pick up your head and laugh so hard,

It echoes ‘round the globe/

‘Cause I’m not coming back, but

someday you’ll be here/

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So I’ll just wait like they waited for me,

And we’ll sing that song and cheer/

Oh, I’m back home, so check your tears at the door…”

— from “Check Your Tears at the Door,” by Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, Mystery Road, 1987

John Jordan passed away November 13 at age 76. He leaves behind three children, a 60-year legacy in the sign industry and the adoration of hundreds of Letterheads the world over.

I first met John Jordan at the 2002 International Letterheads meet, which Jill Welsh hosted in Mars, PA. He’d come from Caringbah, New South Wales, Australia, where he’d owned his own signshop for more than 40 years. I’d first contacted him earlier that year for information about the previous autumn’s Australian Letterheads meet.

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Recalling that he’d be coming to Mars, I contacted him with an unusual request. Curious, I asked him to bring me a tin of Vegemite® from Down Under (for the unfamiliar, Vegemite is a salty spread invented in Australia that’s principally made by extracting yeast used to brew beer, which is flavored with onion, celery and other flavorings).

My palate equated Vegemite with rancid French onion soup, but I’d met a man I quickly came to admire as an artisan and a person. However, I failed to make a positive impression; eager for a good shot of him gilding the windows at Mars’ old train station, I took a shot with a bright flash through the pane’s other side.

“Bloody hell, Steve, you blinded me for 10 minutes,” he told me later during the meet, and I was jokingly reminded every time I saw him thereafter about my faux pas.

John traveled faithfully to Letterhead meets throughout the world. A diminutive man, he nonetheless captured a room (and the goodwill of everyone in it) with his quick wit and wry smile. He could be spotted at 100 paces by his windblown tuft of white hair, weatherbeaten face, well-worn sandals and impish grin.

When I met John in person again at the 2004 International Meet in Detroit, he dutifully attempted to teach me proper kerning and layout (a lost cause if ever one existed — I’m a writer, not an artist). The next year, at Mike Meyer’s Mazeppa gathering, he practically jumped across the table shaking my hand and patting my back when I told him I’d met the woman I thought I would marry (Karen and I tied the knot last July). He told me about his own marital devotion — a widower for more than 30 years, he said he didn’t feel the need to remarry. John said, “I’ve already loved the best.”

I was ecstatic when he agreed to come to Safari at the Zoo 2 last June to teach a goldleaf course. He appeared somewhat weary as he spoke and perhaps a little selfconscious about being the center of attention. Through his dissemination of the proper application of whiting and how to burnish for an ideal shine, his knowledge of and passion for the craft resounded.

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Even his hardscrabble induction into the sign industry commanded respect. In 1945, as his first job as an apprenticed signmaker, he painted signs in a corrugated-iron shed with a dirt floor and no electricity.

Eventually, he earned a promotion to proper facilities at Sydney’s George Brown and Co., where he worked until 1961, when he opened Jordan Signs on a budget of $400 and a staff of one. Apt craftsmen and businessmen, John and Paul, who’s run the business for several years, adapted with the times and outfitted the shop with the tools and equipment a shop requires to remain competitive.

But, John’s legacy far transcends any tools or machinery. There are too few people in this world who leave the world a better place than they found it. The Letterhead move ment, and the sign industry in general, lost one when John Jordan closed his eyes for the last time.

I felt saddened when I heard of John’s passing, and I’ll risk reproach from the “manly man” club and admit that my eyes welled up a bit when I heard the news. But, he wouldn’t want to be remembered through tears; simply smiling and retelling one of his anecdotes (when and where appropriate — some rated on the bawdy end of the spectrum) will suffice. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to possess the skill, teach an aspiring signmaker to gild with the same patience and enthusiasm that John gave tirelessly to his brothers and sisters of the brush.

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