While the name Michael Rielley may not be known internationally, the influence that he and a small handful of others had on the craft of sign making live on in the organization that he helped found, the Letterheads.
Michael Walter Rielley, of Westminster, Colorado, died on Sept. 14 at the age of 70 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Friends remember him as a kind man who had a deep appreciation of his craft.
“We’re going to miss Mike, of course,” says Bill Hueg, who worked with Rielley for a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s at Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park in Denver. “He was just a good companion, I guess is the best way to put it. A brother of the brush.”
Starting with just seven, Letterheads is now international
Rielley was born in Maryland and, after his family relocated to the Lone Star State graduated from high school in Amarillo, Texas.
As a young man he worked briefly as a telegraph operator for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. But his lifelong love was art, and he moved to California to pursue an art education.
After school he moved to Denver, where as an apprentice he met Mark Oatis, who today works as creative director for national sign company YESCO in Las Vegas.
“I think that Mike was my first pal in apprentice school when I started going to Sign and Pictorial Painters Local 1045 (in 1971),” Oatis says.
It wasn’t long after that Rielley, Oatis and some others began getting together casually to discuss the fine art of sign making, something that they didn’t feel was being emphasized enough in their training.
“In the early days of the Letterheads, a lot of the activities took place around Rustic Sign Studios, which was owned by Rick Flores, who was also one of the original founders,” Oatis says.
The group of seven, which also included Noel Weber, John Frazier, Bob Mitchell and Earl Vehill, began meeting around 1973 but didn’t officially become the Letterheads, a name coined by Vehill, until 1975.
“We were all just young guys at the tail end of our apprenticeships and we were all just really passionate about what we were doing,” says Weber, who owns Classic Design Studio in Boise, Idaho. “Our trade was going in a direction that most of us didn’t like.”
The seven founding members of Letterheads continued to champion the old ways of sign making and picked up a few additional members over the next several years but the group didn’t attract wide attention until several years later, according to Oatis. Weber had moved to Boise and, in 1982, he invited the other Letterheads members to have a meeting up there. He also invited others in the profession and the turnout was better than anyone expected, Oatis says.
“That was really the first time much of any people besides the Denver group attended,” he says.
Even though this was pre-Internet, word about the Letterheads started to spread, and chapters began springing up everywhere. There were never any officers, Oatis says, or dues or even any formal rules. The bond was in the love and respect its members had for the old ways of sign making and lettering.
Today Letterheads is an international group, and will be celebrating its 40th anniversary next year.
Oatis says he last saw Rielley in May, and told his friend that he was looking forward to his serving on the planning committee for next year’s anniversary.
It was then that Rielley opened up to Oatis about how sick he was. He didn’t know if he’d be around to see the Letterheads’ 40th anniversary, Oatis says Rielley told him.
A craftsman with a down to earth perspective
Rielley spent the last 19 years as the sign shop manager at Elitch Gardens. Andrea Urban, who today is the office and benefits manager at Elitch’s, first got to know him when she was hired as a seasonal employee to work in the sign shop.
“Having studied art and graphic design for four years I was, needless to say, impressed with the creative processes that took place in his sign shop,” Urban says in a eulogy she wrote for Rielley’s funeral. … “I literally felt like I was attending a studio art class and getting paid.”
She ended up not reading the entire document at his service, she said, but instead spoke off the cuff.
She says Rielley had been fighting lung cancer for the past two years but came into work consistently until he finally became too sick to do so. His last day was August 5, she writes.
“Over the past 16 years I’ve had a habit of returning to the comfort and stability of the sign shop when things would get a little crazy in admin,” writes Urban. “Mike would always have a very down to earth perspective on whatever the current craziness was upstairs.”
Hueg, who says he had known Rielley for several years before he went to work for him at Elitch’s, says he admired Rielley’s ability to adapt to the demands placed on him at Elitch’s.
“He loved the craft,” Hueg says. “But he also understood, especially in the position that he was in at Elitch’s, that he needed to produce things in multiples and fast. And he did a really good job at making the jump to computers.”
During his time at Elitch’s he won nine of the park’s annual excellence awards because of his workmanship and managerial skills, Urban writes in her eulogy.
Urban also thanks his family – his sisters, his sons, his daughter and his granddaughter – “for sharing Mike with us.”
Aside from creating art, Rielley also wrote periodic articles for Sign Business magazine, the precursor to Sign & Digital Graphics. His other hobbies included bowling and riding his 2012 Harley-Davidson. As his obituary noted, “he found his inner biker late in life.”
In early September, Urban and other Elitch’s employees and friends of Rielley gathered to officially rename the park’s KiddieLand Tike Bike ride, “Mike’s Bikes” in Rielley’s honor.
“We know he loved his bike and wanted a permanent reminder of him in the park,” Urban writes. “We are presenting a copy of the dedication photo to each of his children today (at his funeral).”