Long: Lessons in hard work from a legendary Roanoke sign maker | Columnists


John Long

In my last column, I offered some rambling thoughts on the proposed four-day workweek and what it might mean for “work-life balance” (a concept I’ve never really liked because it involves that work is somehow an obstacle to life). Since then, by chance, I heard two radio reports and read an article about the phenomenon of “silent withdrawal”: doing the bare minimum to keep your job, like slamming your laptop in mid-sentence at 5 a.m. precise. Of course, even that isn’t new – I’ve read “Dilbert” in this newspaper for years. But in the real world, I’m not sure the concept serves employees well. Isn’t it better to impress your bosses with your diligence and learn to derive satisfaction from a job well done.

I had the opportunity to continue thinking about work and the work ethic when I got a call from my 97-year-old friend Bob Kinsey. He and I chat from time to time, and I always listen, because if someone has a clear memory that spans almost a full century, we always have to be careful.

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Bob wanted to share his thoughts on a 40-hour workweek based on some memories of his family, working for and with his father, and business practices in Roanoke from decades past. We were on the phone, so I couldn’t see the twinkle in his eyes, but I could tell he was there.

Bob’s father, Roy Kinsey, defined the hard worker. He started working in advertising at age 13 and was listed in the city directory as a sign painter at age 15. Even before that, he had delivered this newspaper, earning a penny for each paper sold. (This led to a brief talk about the cost of newspapers today, but also how important the local paper is to him and his pre-internet generation).

Soon young Roy had his own sign shop, which opened in 1907. The company was headquartered in downtown Roanoke, as Mr. Kinsey believed that a thriving advertising business relied on walk-in clients, like the doctor who wanted hand-painted letters on his office window.

Naturally, as they grew up, Bob and his two older brothers became employees of their father. Even though the sons came to prefer Saturdays off, Mr. K stubbornly insisted on a 5 1/2 day work week. Also, when they came down on Saturdays, they had to spend the rest of the day working on the family dairy farm, roughly where the Countryside Golf Course would later settle. Bob recounted that when pasteurization became necessary, the farm sold its milk to Garst Brothers Dairy. Some people reading this probably grew up sipping milk from Kinsey cows.

Hard work. But nothing Bob said made me think Bob resented those long hours. Not a quiet quitter, he seems to appreciate the lessons it taught him.

Bob can still rattle off the exact addresses of the family sign business as he travels (but still firmly rooted in the downtown business community). Eventually, the company moved into a larger space where it could offer a new service, which defined advertising for much of the century: neon. The Kinsey Company was the first neon store in Virginia (1933) and only the second in the country. Their prominence in the industry is why Roanoke has a star of garish beauty atop Mill Mountain.

Kinsey Neon and Sign Co. is still in operation, although it is now located a few miles from downtown Roanoke and, I noticed, is now closed on Saturdays.

I enjoyed my conversation with Bob Kinsey, as I always do. Of course, work and the expectations of the workweek have changed significantly since the Kinsey boys made signs and shoveled manure. Technology has made many jobs obsolete, while making the average worker far more productive. I drive several times a week past the General Electric plant in Salem — the sprawling complex is mostly vacant these days. An engineer with a computer can do what 10 of his predecessors could do with drafting tables; Plus, there’s no longer any reason for two people working on the same project to be in the same room, or even on the same continent. Roy Kinsey would, I imagine, marvel at certain aspects of modern economics; and shakes his head at others.

Things will continue to change, of course. But some things – diligence, prudence, frugality, punctuality, people skills – are timeless. Maybe my grandkids will only work four days a week, but if they can learn some of the lessons that Bob Kinsey took to heart in a successful career, they’ll be fine.

Long is a Salem historian, writer, and educator.

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