Wayne Rucker has been hand-painting signs since the early 1960s. At 85 years old, the owner of Rucker Signs in Marshall, Missouri, works six days a week and even climbs ladders to do the job right, against the orders of his children, who worry about his safety.
Since January, Rucker has faced another impediment to his very busy schedule.
“I’m fighting a little colon cancer,” he says, “but I plan on whipping it.”
Between bouts of chemotherapy, Rucker still manages to get the job done. He says that’s because he has understanding customers.
He started his sign shop in 1961 with about $37 in the bank. His wife, Barbara, was a nurse at the hospital in Marshall at the time, “and we toughed it out,” he says.
“I was doing some artwork for a weekly shopper newspaper here in town. (The owner of that paper was) the one that enticed me to start my own business,” Rucker says. His first client was a major grocery store in town. He was laying out all of their ads and hand painting all of their window sales signs.
“I told the manager when we started, if this doesn’t work out, in six months we will part friends. I did that from the 1960s into the late ’70s.
At the time, Rucker was painting a lot of trucks and board signs of various sizes. He did some metal and aluminum signs in the ’60s but there wasn’t much of that type of work.
In 1968, the man who had enticed Rucker into the sign business talked him and his wife into buying the weekly shopper newspaper from him. It was 12 to 16 pages of ads. Barbara ran it full-time and Wayne handled the ad layouts. The couple ran the newspaper until Barbara passed away in 1998. He kept it open with the help of one of his daughters and her husband for a while until the daily newspaper offered to buy him out.
“I was glad to get out of it. I was totally lost for six months. I had time on my hands that I didn’t have for a long, long time,” Rucker says.
“It branched out into more work, which was fine. It gives me something to do. I don’t want to retire. I don’t know what I’d do if I retired,” he says. “I haven’t fished for 20 some years; I’ve been too busy. I’d just assume keep on working. I told the kids when the guys from the funeral home came to pick me up, I’d be retired.”
A big part of Rucker’s sign business back in the day was hand lettering the sides of race cars. There was a race track in Marshall at the time and the work kept him fairly busy during the first half of the year painting numbers on 50 or more cars. He also painted signs on many farm trucks.
“But that was all hand-painted stuff,” Rucker says. “Then along came vinyl. I held off on that until 1987 and finally broke down. I had to. There was too much competition otherwise. I finally bought a computer and a sign program and the vinyl.”
Rucker adds that he “wasn’t really happy doing vinyl, but that was what the trend was going to. And now, the brush lettering, either they don’t want to wait or they don’t want to pay the higher price I have to get for hand lettering.”
His little sign shop is now 2,500 square feet and he has three employees, “me, myself and I.”
He has one computer and a Graphtec plotter for cutting vinyl.
“I haven’t got into (the large-format) printing part because of my age and the expense,” Rucker says.
He is sad that hand-painted signs seem to be a dying art form.
“There’s nobody interested in learning how to letter with a brush,” Rucker says. “I know I had a competitor here. I was worried when they opened up. They’re young. The wife told me when we were talking one evening. She said that if their computers go down, they can’t do anything. How can you get work out? I can get paint and brushes out if my computer goes down and I have done that.”
Rucker still loves to paint for fun. He paints pictures of flowers and scenery and he loves to draw, especially in pencil or pastels.
“It’s enjoyable. You just get busy and engrossed in that and you forget all your troubles. At least I do,” Rucker says.
One of the things Rucker loves most about the sign business is that he gets to use his sense of design that he gained through art classes in high school and at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri.
“You have to have a sense of design and art to get a sign that’s readable. So many of them want to put the 23rd Psalm on a small piece of aluminum. It doesn’t work because you can’t read it. You need something that will catch your eye or they can read it quickly and get the message.”
One of the most recent hand-painted signs he made was a 14-foot by 32-foot road sign that advertised Arrow Rock, a historic small town 15 miles southeast of Marshall.
“They had a lot of history down there. It was very enjoyable. I just figured out how to get it all done and where it all matched up and put it together,” Rucker says.
He is very proud that he didn’t use any vinyl to make the sign.
Rucker is a self-taught sign painter. He learned “by watching other sign people that were still doing brush when I started. I watched them, talked to them. They helped me an awful lot.”
He recommends that younger people interested in hand painting signs read some of the books written by old timers.
“You’ve got to learn how to put the two together,” Rucker says. “You can do lettering with vinyl and do some fancy work around it with paint. The two will work together if you try.”
“I’ve had an enjoyable life, and I still plan on keeping going. You have to keep busy, especially now, because I can’t get up and work in the yard or flowers or things like that. So you work,” he says. “It is amazing what you can do if you set your mind to it.”
Editor's Note: Wayne Rucker passed away a few weeks after this article was published. The staff of Sign & Digital Graphics wish to acknowledge Wayne's family and friends, and to thank all involved with making this story possible.
--Sincerely, Ken Mergentime