In the Trenches: The Apprentice

It's a risk to let good help go

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Jessie Molina was born in 1920 in Houston, Texas, into a family of 11 other children. His father kept a roof over their heads and food on the table working as a carpenter for a company that manufactured railroad cars.

Jesse was trained as a radio and telegraph operator during WWII, and for a while he was stationed in Washington, D.C., where he married and started his own family. But having a young wife and a baby boy did not keep him from being shipped overseas prior to D-Day, taking a zig-zagging cruise along with 10,000 other GIs on the gray-painted Queen Mary.

His job as radio operator mostly kept him behind the battle lines, and Jessie came though his year in the European Theater without a scratch, but would later report that a lot of the boys he shipped over with did not survive to board the Queen Mary for a straighter and faster sail back home.

Back on the East Coast, Jessie studied art for a year on the GI bill and planned to move to Houston to find a suitable job in that big and bustling city. But, his young wife was from a much smaller town up in the piney woods of northeast Texas, and while visiting her family in Longview he happened to walk by the open door of the Collier Neon Sign Co. and spied a man very adeptly hand lettering a sign in progress. Jessie was fascinated by the skill and speed at which this man did his work.

This was a type of artwork Jessie hadn’t really considered, but a long and friendly conversation with Mr. Collier concluded with an offer of a fulltime job in his wife’s hometown, and taking that job changed his life forever.

Collier Signs was a good place to work back in 1946, and Jessie leaned everything he could and found that he was well suited for the commercial sign business. His apprenticeship lasted about a year, and he was a good student. He was so good that his second year in Longview found him running a small sign shop of his own, and since his own family would never get any larger than the three of them, the small frame house he built behind his business would never be outgrown.

Except for the occasional help of a traveling (and often alcoholic) sign artist, Jessie was the only regular sign painter at Molina signs for the next 25 years. Then in 1972, a strapping young man just out of high school, planning to work while attending a local junior college, walked into his shop and was fascinated by the speed and skill with which Jessie handled his lettering brushes. And this artistic young fellow was looking for work.

Jessie handed me a brush and asked me to finish the lettering he was working on, and the production speed in that shop dropped significantly. When he demonstrated the correct technique to use for making that brush do what it was supposed to do, my progress improved right away.

Jessie said, “Rick, you have no skill or training for this type of work, but you have potential, that much I can see. Because I really need some help, I’m willing to pay you while you learn, but you have to be willing to work cheap. How about one dollar an hour, and when school starts up you can arrange your hours to fit your class schedule?

And that job offer changed my life forever. I enjoyed working for Mr. Molina, in his modest little sign shop over on Hudson Street, and I too was a fast learner. Within six months I was hand painting the majority of the signs that went through his shop, freeing up Jessie to call on clients, build signs and do fabrication and installs, often with the part-time help of Jessie Jr.  

My apprenticeship lasted about a year, and then Jessie made a huge mistake. In the middle of the next summer, the sign shop got dead slow, so he laid me off for a week or two. But I quickly found that there were plenty of lettering and sign jobs out there, and just a small sales effort on my part uncovered more work than I could do. And, as they say, the rest is history.

This history is mostly interesting because the smooth repeating nature of it will never happen again. Artistic young men don’t find their careers hand lettering signs anymore, and the local sign painter or sign artist, once in great demand, will soon be a footnote in the pages of history like the telegraph operator or blacksmith. In Longview, Texas, this narrative ends with me.

But I am thankful for my career, and my connection to a history that goes back through the ages, and for one member of the Greatest Generation, my mentor and friend, Jesus Salvador Molina, “Jessie,” gone for 10 years now… but certainly not forgotten. 

Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is the managing editor of Graphics Pro.

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