GTPulse – The Woman, The Legend: The Sign Lady
Roy’s General Store defined the word ‘enigma’ for me the first time I walked in. It’s a gas station, a hardware store, and a hot food buffet, with deer mounts and antiques on the wall. Also, a garden store. Despite the unique, multipurpose nature of Roy’s, it’s their outdoor sign that draws more attention than anything.
A good sign is hard to find. It’s not easy to convey humor solely through a few words on a sign, but it’s a talent that Deb Hentschel has.
“This one got a lot of controversy,” Deb said, raising her eyebrows over her glasses as she pointed at a scribbling of words. “Stop in for a hot quickie. Breakfast.”
A faded, hot pink notepad that reads ‘Sign Log 2012-2013 2014’ is filled with a bunch of these small, tongue-in-cheek quips. Car parts that share names with body parts were turned into smirk-inducing innuendos. Jokes about everything from drinking beer to the passing of time fill the notebook where Deb has recorded a bunch of the sign sayings she has put up outside of Roy’s.
Passing drivers and local Facebook pages have been both delighted and shocked by the different jokes placed on the sign through the years. The right mix of cheeky, country and quirky humor have lent the changing sign local infamy and love. So much so that people quickly grew curious about who was behind it.
“People started coming into the store to find out who the weirdo was that was doing the signs,” Deb said laughing. “It was flattering! If I came up front and it was tourist season there were actually people that wanted my autograph or wanted to take a picture with me.”
Word was out and Deb became a local legend known simply as The Sign Lady.
She married Bob Hentschel in 1973 but had known him long before that.
“We grew up together,” she said smiling. “I was the farmer’s daughter.”
Bob’s is one of Roy’s sons. When Roy passed in 2008, the business was left to the family.
“My father-in-law had cancer and he couldn’t do much anymore, so he appointed my son to be the CEO. That was in 2008 and he brought things out of some real bad financial problems.”
Different family members contribute to running different parts of the store and Deb liked to be able to help out. She’s a trained florist and before the market crashed, had been selling arrangements out of the general store.
“I was a florist for 25 years, and I opened a flower shop in the store. I did several weddings. I think we did it for maybe four years. We decided it wasn’t lucrative enough. People don’t expect to get a trained florist at a gas station.”
Deb took over running the hot food service and it was then when she got to thinking about the sign out front.
“I got frustrated because nobody would change the sign. It was just stuff about, you know…automotive oil. So, we had milk on sale and I put up something about how can a brown cow that eats green grass, give white milk, and putting up other things like that. So I started messing around with the sign a little and business started to pick up. I thought, ‘now that’s something.’”
The changing sign became a trademark for Roy’s. Ideas for the sign popped into Deb’s head through daily life working at the store, and she indulged all of them. Even some that she had to answer for when they sparked community controversy. But, she’s also included the community in the fun too. A high school girl asked a guy to prom through the sign, and when he agreed the sign happily updated that he said yes. A contest several years ago was titled Stump The Sign Lady! Contestants were tasked with writing in a word for Deb to incorporate into one of her signs.
“We got 96 responses! Six were repeats. But at the time, we had this big tube of plastic snaking across the driveway and hot air blowing through it to thaw the ground beneath it. Someone ran into the side of the building hitting the brain box for the gas pumps. We had to run new wiring to the pumps to make them work. Consequently, when I saw the word colonoscopy, I thought our driveway looked like a huge colon and came up with a sign! Pretty funny.”
The signs are pretty much all family friendly these days. They used to be changed every week but have since slowed to about once or twice a month. Deb hasn’t been around the store as much since her husband got seriously sick with influenza A on a cruise, and since injuring her own shoulder and having to look after sick parents, all within a span of a few months.
Being a rock for her husband and her parents has become a full-time job. Even as I followed Deb through the store to the back office, employees warmly greeted and hugged her. Seeing Deb is a treat for anyone who encounters her. Dressed in a fluffy, sparkly headpiece, necklace and earrings with peacock colored jewels, her magnetism and presence are as bold as her signs.
“Put a funny spin on stuff, it makes people’s day. They’ve gotta sit at that stupid traffic light that for like five minutes. So, let them have something to make their day happy.”
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