The Sign Man of Essex County
(by Tod Swormstedt, reprinted from Signs of the Times, August, 2016 issue)
Matthew Beneduce McGrath was a well-known name in his town of Verona, NJ and in the surrounding Essex County. He was one of the town’s “characters,” an outgoing, always engaging kind of guy, not so great on meeting deadlines, but what a master at his craft. He was the sign man—the one who did all the exquisitely carved and gilded signs for numerous businesses, for the town and county and for local schools and churches.
Matthew was also a great supporter of the museum, and a personal friend of mine. It was a real honor to have Matthew and his wife of 32 years, Gloria, at the museum’s Grand Opening four years ago.
His mark can be felt throughout the museum, and particularly in those areas devoted to signpainting materials and tools. There are innumerable pints and quarts of lettering enamels, bulletin colors, poster colors, etc; vintage tools such as wood compasses, pounce wheels and razor blade holders; brushes, including a complete set of still-in-the box Langnickels which he purchased from the Langnickel estate sale some years ago; manufacturer’s brochures and catalogs; vintage signpainting books; and even a neon clock—all donated by Matthew. These were either passed down by the signpainter masters who came before him, or purchased in the antique stores and flea markets he frequented.
Back in May of this year, I needed to go pick up a sign that Jeff Friedman, Let There Be Neon in New York, was graciously storing for me, and I mentioned it to Matthew. He said he had “a few more things for the museum,” too and to come by. So I drove to New Jersey—just across the river from Tribeca—and picked up Matthew.
Among the items he had for me was a handpainted and gilded tin sign for, “Alfred Breunig – Truck Lettering.” The sign had hung in his shop ever since he had purchased it from another area signpainter—one of Matthew’s many mentors—who had found it face-down in a barn, cleaned it up and added the tasteful frame to stabilize it structurally. I’ll never know his name now. Matthew was going to write it down with some other notes about the guy . . .
You see on Friday night, June 24, while Matthew was working late (as was his habit), he told Bill O’Donnell, who shared the shop with him, that, “He’d be right back.” Several minutes later, he was killed as he walked across the street—the victim of a hit-and-run. He was 59.
Even though I had spent many hours with Matthew in my dozen or so visits to his shop, he never really talked about himself. He was more likely to acknowledge the gift of all the area signpainters who had come before him and who had been his mentors. And of course, he was always pulling stuff out of corners of the shop, saying, “Oh, and this belongs in the museum, too.”
It was at his memorial service that I learned that Matthew’s roots were deep in signpainting. His father had dabbled in signpainting, but his father—Mathew’s grandfather—had been a real signpainter, as was his grandfather’s father—Matthew’s great grandfather back in Matthew’s hometown of Loganport, IN. I also learned of Matthew’s love of music. He had taken blues harp lessons from an old master in New York City, and he was known to play a mean washboard as well. Another of his buddy’s played a song at the memorial service, noting that it was one he and Matthew had been working on earlier in the week. Turns out the two of them would meet nearly every Wednesday night to write songs together.
But Matthew was most known for his sign work. Not only in Essex County, but in his hometown of Logansport, whose local paper chose to remember Matthew’s passing with a feature story on the sign he had carved and gilded for the local Dentzel Carousel twenty years ago. It seemed fitting that at the visitation, there was the easel display of photos of family and friends through the years complimented by two additional easels with photos of a sampling of the memorable signs that Matthew had designed and created for his town. These signs will continue as a lasting memory of Matthew’s contribution to his hometown and adopted Essex County. You can rest now Matthew, knowing that you’ve made a positive mark on your community now and for the future. That is unless St. Peter needs a new carved and gilded entrance sign, and you’d be just the man to do it.