New Cloudland school sign reflects expertise of Robert Burleson, designer

By Rozella Hardin


   When the Cloudland Elementary Parent-Teacher group decided to erect a sign for their new school, they turned to the best and to one of their own -- Robert A. Burleson.
   Burleson, who recently returned to his native Roan Mountain, volunteered to design the sign and oversee its installation. Perhaps one of the best in the business, Burleson had just retired from the sign industry, having worked 30 years with Heath Northwest Sign Company of Seattle and Portland. He had been an innovator in the sign business, in both designing and marketing.
   In fact, one of Burleson's first jobs in the sign business was at Tennessee Eastman in Kingsport, where he helped promote a new type of plastic sign, which is still the standard for plastic signs. Before that, Burleson, while serving with the U.S. Army at Fort Jackson, S.C., had made a hit with his superiors by designing interiors for mess halls, day rooms, and offices. "I liked to draw when I was growing up, and they (the Army) discovered that I could draw and design, and really gave me an opportunity to expand on it," he said.
   Burleson notes that he never had any formal art training. "It was a talent I had, and something I pursued. It helped me make a good living," he said.
   After leaving the Army, he took a job with a sign company in Columbia, S.C., which designed and built floats for parades, which were rented by small towns for Christmas parades and the such.
   While working for the Felix Sign Company in Kingsport, Burleson was approached by Tennessee Eastman engineers about marketing a new type of plastic they had developed, which they thought might be good for signs. "It was a good idea because before that time, the manufacture of plastic signs was very labor-intensive. Only mass production could justify the expense, so the only large plastic signs at that time were those used by large chains such as gasoline companies. The introduction of Uvex by Eastman revolutionized plastic sign making because it could be more easily molded," explained Burleson.
   Burleson was soon on the road promoting the new plastic with sign companies all over the country.
   Sporting a bushy mustache and a western hat, Burleson speaks with pride of his achievements. "I'm not one to boast, but I am quite proud of what we've achieved," he said.
   One of his biggest successes, he said, was designing a sign for the Thunderbird Casino in Las Vegas. "The sign was 40-foot-by-150 foot, and we developed a mold to produce invisible seams," he said.
   He worked for Tennessee Eastman for 10 years before leaving in 1968 for the Northwest and a new venture in the sign business. That was when he joined Heath Northwest, one of the premiere sign businesses in the country. While with Heath Northwest, he installed the sign for the first McDonald's in Moscow and provided the moving signs at the scorer's tables for the National Basketball Association. "My expertise was in designing," he said.
   The new Cloudland sign, which Burleson wanted to be something special, has an arc at the top of it to make it more individualistic. The supports are white rectangular columns, which have caps at the connection with the sign. The sign is in the school colors of blue and gold. "A great deal of effort was made to make sure the board was gold and not merely yellow," he said.
   There is wrought ornamental work at the base of the sign and an oval shield containing a stylized capital C for Cloudland.
   "It is head and shoulders above 90 percent of the signs in this region. I was glad to do it, and it was a way of giving something back to the community where I was born and raised," Burleson said.
   Now that he is retired, Burleson has been painting some. "I enjoy landscapes," he said.
   He was also very active in the Masons, and one of his projects for the local Masons is restoring an old calliope that was once used by the Oriental Shrine Band of the Jericho Temple, of which he was a charter member back in the early 1950s.
   "I've done pretty good for an old country boy, who had no formal training," he said.