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Mike’s Team

High-tech hopes in Appalachia

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At the historic Cumberland Gap, the western panhandle of Virginia narrows down to a small wedge tucked between the borders of Kentucky and Tennessee. Lee County, VA, is a thinly populated and hugely scenic region where farming and coal mining have long been economic mainstays. But nowadays, mining is increasingly automated and coal companies have shed employees. For the hardy residents of Lee County, that spells trouble.

On a remarkably fine, sun-drenched day in February, however, hope reigned supreme at the grand opening of Virginia Specialty Neon’s (Dryden, VA) new training facility. Owner and Training Director Mike King proudly claims that his 12,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art neon school is the world’s largest.

But the school’s size is hardly its only unique characteristic. King has a strong, personal commitment to people with physical handicaps, and many of his present and future students are paraplegics. The school has installed special equipment to enable wheelchair-bound people to learn the neon trade. Thanks to a public/private partnership among King, Shackleford and the Lee County Industrial Development Authority, the new neon school has the resources to combine professional instruction with the latest equipment.

The right stuff

At the school’s grand opening, Mike King’s enthusiasm was infectious. Upon completion of his new, 40,000-square-foot production facility in nearby Pennington Gap, VA (scheduled to open in April), King promises nothing less than the nation’s most sophisticated neon-sign plant with the best-trained workforce. If this sounds like mere hype, consider King’s resume.

As a beach boy from southern California, King traded his surfboard for M60 machine guns that he manned as a door-gunner on Army helicopters in Vietnam. The sharpshooting soldier earned several military honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1968. His top-gun reputation attracted the attention of Army brass, including General William Westmoreland, who tapped King as a door-gunner for his private chopper. King’s experience as a Vietnam paratrooper prepared him to become a championship skydiver and to open skydiving schools in Oklahoma and Tennessee. The ability to control his body in free-fall also enabled King to set a world high-diving record of 245 feet.

When he returned to California, Mike met Delaney Kitts, proprietor of Kitts Neon in San Diego. Delaney was a master tube-bender and a certified graduate of the Egani Glassblowing School (New York). In the mid-1980s, he trained and certified King as a master in his craft. Mike opened his first neon shop in Chuckey, TN, but he later established Southeastern Neon Graphics (Kingsport, TN).

Mike’s friend and business partner, Dink Shackleford, has been wheelchair-bound since the age of 15, when he was injured in a coal-mine accident. But Dink’s misfortune took him out of the mines and into college. He now serves as executive director of the Virginia Mining Assn. (Norton, VA), a lobbying organization for the mining industry. In his spare time, Dink is an avid booster for Lee County’s economic development.

Lynn Ordiway was crippled in a motorcycle accident at the age of 30. Today, after five years under Mike King’s tutelage, Lynn is the new school’s assistant instructor. Using a custom-designed workstation, Ordiway demonstrated his tube-bending skills at the school’s grand opening. Lynn is also an accomplished trainer of man’s best friend, as demonstrated by his well-mannered sidekick, William Tell the Rottweiler.

During my visit, I also met Mike King’s business associate, Charles Rotenberry, who owns Signs by Roach (Kingsport, TN). Rotenberry is a professional sign painter who specializes in creating impressive sandblasted and carved signs. In collaboration with Virginia Specialty Neon, Rotenberry plans to market these signs adorned with custom neon accents.

Systems and equipment for Virginia Specialty Neon

King’s reputation as a perfectionist isn’t surprising when you consider the narrow margins for error in his daredevil past. Assistant Instructor Ordiway warns that, if a product doesn’t measure up to Mike’s exacting standards, it winds up in the trash barrel. King’s no-nonsense attitude applies equally to the new school’s students. According to Mike, "We’re looking for people who are serious about learning the neon trade. If someone thinks they can come down here and waste my time, I’ll refund their tuition and send them on their way."

Commitment to high-quality work is an integral part of King’s training method, and that commitment is reflected by the school’s neon-processing equipment. After analyzing several neon-processing systems for the new school, King chose the Modulart

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