TO THE LETTER!
A short history how a fifteen cent pen launched a career over 50 years ago.
When I got to the 6th grade, my parents hired a man to draw some house plans for a new home they planned to build. When he delivered the drawings there was a lot of excitement in the family; we were anxious to see the room layouts and how our new home would look on that nice corner lot in Hugo, Oklahoma.
Before I even looked to see where my bedroom would be, I was enchanted by the lettering the guy did on the drawings. His hand-printing was absolutely beautiful, at least to me. Not sure I would have given it a second glance had it not been for Virginia Baines’ Christmas homework there years earlier! No cursive for the house plans guy, however. His letters were all very architectural in style and I was thoroughly charmed. From that point on, I became keenly aware of pretty printing and handwriting. I grew to love the billboards and retail window signs the local sign shop created across the small town’s landscape and business areas.
During high school I worked part time at a department store. I sold shoes, overalls, shirts and Fruit of the Loom underwear. I swept the wooden floors, and swabbed out the toilets. I was proud to have that thirty-cent an hour job when gas for my 5 year old ’52 Chevy Coupe was 19.9 per gallon.
One of the employees at the Peoples Store was an old gentleman who was pure magic with a flat brush and tempera paint. Part of his job description, in addition to teaching me how to sell shoes, was to hand-letter price posters that were peppered all over the store on little metal stands. BIG SMITH OVERALLS, $2.98. MENS’ DRESS SHIRTS, $2.39. His work mesmerized me. He never let me try his brush but I watched him many hours over the course of 4 years as he hand-lettered signs for the store.
Eight years after the set of house plans, I was at Oklahoma State University, rooming with a Hugo guy in my senior graduating class in Hugo. It was our second year there but he started out in the school of Architectural Design. I didn’t. Seeing his work…and lettering…drew me to the building where he and the other architectural majors worked on their designs. I loved the look and feel of the work they did and so I enrolled in Architectural Design 101 in January of 1961.
During the first day of class, an old professor named Rex Cunningham went to the blackboard and made big letters with the side of a 3” piece of chalk. At the end of the class, the assignment for the 50 of us in the room was to visit the OSU bookstore, purchase a Speedball dip pen, a pen staff, a bottle of ink, and a piece of poster paper. “Letter something and bring it to class tomorrow morning” were his parting words.
I did that. Spent most of the night on my hands and knees on a cold tile dormitory room floor, penning a 10 line, double limerick I had composed about the class. I turned it in, got a B minus on the assignment, and my life was forever changed. The rest of that semester, at the expense of calculus, chemistry, and humanities, I became the go-to guy in that class for hand-lettering. We did numerous projects that spring semester and I was the only student the the class who continued to letter descriptions, dimensions, and titles in calligraphy. I could out-letter the whole blooming class. My pen was smoking after a few weeks and I practiced incessantly. I got out with a B in the class. I think that was because I had water running uphill on a drainpipe in the Medical Clinic class project drawings!
FIRST SUMMER AFTER LAST COLLEGE
At the end of that spring semester, I returned home to continue my work at the local radio station KIHN where, for a buck an hour, I played records, read the news, and had a grand time. One morning on the way to work I went by the post office and found a letter addressed to me from the Dean of Men at Oklahoma State University. My heart skipped a beat. I just knew the Dean had been appraised of my expert lettering and he would be congratulating me on the outstanding work.
His letter read something to the effect of:
“Dear Mr. Brown……It has come to my attention that your grade point average for the previous semester was less than a whole number. OSU won’t be expecting your return so please make other plans for the fall. Best of Luck, Joe Blow, Dean of Men, Oklahoma State University.
I was crushed. For only about a minute. Then, I decided it wouldn’t get me down. I, indeed, would make other plans.
Come September, after a summer at the broadcast desk at the tiny radio station in Hugo, I hit the road for Dallas, Texas. Through a stroke of good luck…and samples of my lettering and drafting assignments….I landed a job at the Frito Company in Dallas. I was hired to do detailed drawings for the engineering department. It was known as ‘drafting,’ …making working drawings of corn chip processing equipment. Soakers. Grinders. Cookers. Salters. Conveyors. Baggers. All that behind the cornfield scene that produced the world’s insatiable need for the taste and crunch of Fritos Corn Chips. Great little job where I spent every coffee break and most of my lunch hours practicing my calligraphy. I was there 12 months at $1.70 per hour and all the Fritos, Cheetos, and Doritos I could eat.
From there, I made a connection at Texas Instruments in another drafting job where, again, I spent every free moment honing my broadpen lettering sills. Three years there led me to a sales job, working for a manufacturer’s rep in the commercial construction business. I sold cork pads, dust collectors, exhaust fans, and rubber pipe connectors. I was as far out of my element as a manicurist bathing elephants. Hated the job and stayed there for 3 years because of a great boss and lots of freedom. And an amazing expense account. I was getting to be a pretty good Calligrapher and began taking the poetic license and capitalizing the word since it was my favorite activity with my clothes on. By the late sixties I had a considerable stream of extra revenue, regularly flowing my way.
Finally, I realized selling the stuff I was selling had no charm, no creativity, and no future for me. I mucked up so many quotes for equipment, using a slide rule. I’d get the decimal in the wrong place…sometimes VERY wrong…and it cost my boss, the manufacturer’s rep, big time. We got many jobs selling equipment below cost because of my total ineptitude with a calculating device favored by math nerds and people far smarter that I.
I hit the streets again. With all the fun and prestige…using that word somewhat lightly!…at my buck-an-hour job at the radio station after high school, I wanted back in broadcasting, in some capacity. It took months of networking and interviewing and plying the streets of Dallas until the promotion director at WFAA TV in Dallas saw a spark he liked and hired me…saved me….from cork pads, fans, and pipes and the dreadful slide rule! I was hired to write 3 second station identifications between programs. Not the most challenging assignment but it beat the construction sales and dealing with a bunch of dullards in the engineering world of building, heating, and cooling buildings!
At every spare moment and opportunity, I had pen in hand lettering something that I could use in the tv promotion department. Lunch hours, with no time for lunches, had me on the streets hustling jobs from the chamber of commerce, banks, charities….any place I could convince my Calligraphy would be a fit. Probably the most important part…among many…was bragging rights I had regarding my Calligraphy ‘being on television.’ Within a few months in the promotion department, my tasks grew to being responsible for the visuals that would be used at the station id throughout the broadcast day at WFAA TV, Channel 8. Before special calendar dates, I would prepare an order for the art department to create graphic illustrating, for example, Valentine’s Day. The artists back in their cubbyhole might have painted a big red heart with the station logo below it. Emblazoned across the heart would be my Calligraphy…”Happy Valentine’s Day!” The composite of their art and my Calligraphy would be transformed into a 35mm slide to be shown at station break time, usually on the hour and half hour through the day.
Station break graphics at Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, for most of the time I worked there, featured Ken Brown Calligraphy and I could tell any moonlighting prospect that very fact. No doubt it helped validate me and my work. It was a real hoot for me to claim that my work could be seen across the entire viewing audience of hundreds of thousands of households all across north Texas!
After a bit over three years in promotion and production at WFAA TV…which I loved dearly….I had to make a decision. I was leading two lives, one of which I simply had to surrender.
One of the famous Yogi Berra bits of wisdom was, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” The fork in the road was staring me in the face. Television or Calligraphy. Well, you know what I chose. The letter from the Dean of Men and the television job were both huge blessings.
MOONLIGHTING DURING TELEVISION
Moonlighting had brightened the way considerably during my tenure at WFAA TV. TV by day, nurturing Calligraphy in every way possible and Calligraphy by night, satisfying customers who had discovered there was a pretty good lettering artist in the neighborhood. But I was living two lives that I couldn’t sustain and do much justice to either.
I gave my notice to the guys in the carpeted office and began to end my brief history of 9 years getting a regular paycheck.
he nice little going-away party, with 40-50 of the tv folks I worked with, was in Studio C. The air was abuzz with polite comments skirting on the edge of, “Hey good luck, been nice working with you, but you’re looney if you think you can really earn your way with Calligraphy!” My polite answer was “Thank you; yes I can!”
To be continued…