Robert Noles/Opelika Observer
By Morgan Bryce
Growing up in Jackson, Tenn. in the midst of the Great Depression, Gene Dorris, founder of the well-known Opelika Dorris Signs, said the only thing he wanted to do was paint like his father Vick.
“It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do, to get to be a sign painter. Just taking a brush and making something look better … it’s real fulfilling to work with your hands,” Gene said.
After high school, Gene furthered his sign-painting knowledge by attending Chicago’s Superior Sign School, and in 1950, became the institution’s youngest graduate at 18 years old.
In 1951, Gene accepted a job offer to work for Opelika sign-maker James Crawford, who owned and operated the Crawford Sign Shop, which was located on Second Avenue across from Piedmont Fertilizers.
“He was the best sign painter I’ve ever seen work,” Gene said.
In 1952, following Crawford’s decision to step away from the sign-painting business, Gene opened up his own shop on First Avenue.
“It’s a miracle that I stayed in business. I had no sense at all about business … the only thing I had ever tried to do was paint signs,” Gene said.
In the early years, Gene painted signs for major brands like Coca-Cola and Dairyland Farms, as well as hand-lettering taxi cabs and delivery trucks for local businesses.
“We didn’t do much neon then, because there wasn’t many neon signs in this town … and there wasn’t any plastic signs to amount to anything because plastic hadn’t come in real good,” Gene said. “There weren’t any vinyl letters back then … in fact, there wasn’t any vinyl. Everything had to be hand-painted.”
Now, little hand painting is required, as computers have replaced human hands in the sign industry.
“Everything has changed. You don’t have to be a sign painter anymore to be in the sign business,” Gene said. “All you have to have is a computer and a plotter … used to be if we were drawing up what a sign would look like for a customer, we’d have to draw it up with pencil and paper. Now you just turn your computer on, type in a few words and that’s it.”
Despite the technological advances throughout the last 65 years, Dorris Signs has stood the test of time. Though Gene is retired, he still assists his son Ricky and daughter-in-law LaGina in running the business.
Gene said the business is currently thriving, and can offer virtually any kind of signage imaginable to its customers.
“We’re busier now, right this minute, than I’ve ever been since I’ve been in business,” Gene said.
The majority of the business Dorris Signs receives today is coming from new business, and LaGina said that their demand is a way to measure the pulse of Opelika’s economy.
“Probably the biggest thing for us right now is new business … which is great. We always laugh and talk about the fact that we can always see when our economy is changing here or if it’s going downhill,” LaGina said. “But new business has been the biggest bulk … whether that’s new businesses opening up different locations or totally new, we’ve seen a lot of construction … of newer shopping centers like Saugahatchee Square being rebranded to Tiger Square being built.”
Reflecting on why his business has been successful for more than 65 years, Gene credited it to his childhood experiences during the Depression and a desire to meet every customer’s needs and wants.
“I guess what drove me was being hungry, while growing up in the Depression. When you’re on the bottom, you just start trying to dig your way out … and the harder you work, the more you dig,” Gene said. “We’ve always and will continue to try to do what the customer wants. If you can do what the customer wants, you got a satisfied customer then … I think working hard and trying to please our customers have helped us last this long.”
The business is located at 702 1st Ave. For more information, call (334) 745-2645.