By Megan Hall (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, July 2014)
Everything about Bill Dicks is subtle. His kind eyes are paired with soft-spoken words and an unexpected wit and candor. The routed, sandblasted and hand-carved wooden signs that he creates complement their natural surroundings. Even his workshop, located near his home, contains several passageways, leading to new rooms, which explain more about Bill Dicks, owner of Banner Elk’s The Sign Shop.
If you’ve driven down most any road in the High Country since 1971, you’ve likely encountered a Bill Dicks sign, whether it is commercial or residential. The number and quality of his work makes one wonder how a Durham, N.C. native became a renowned mountain craftsman who maintains a very successful business mainly by personal reference, without advertising or a website. It’s all in the subtleties.
“I strive to make a high quality sign, using the best materials available, that will last for many years,” said Bill. “I take pride in my work and enjoy helping customers decide on the sign that is best for them.”
LEARNING A CRAFT
“My mother taught me to chip carve using a single edge razor blade when I was 12 years old,” Bill remembered. Chip carving is a method of surface carving that dates back hundreds of years. “Mom was a real craftsman in her own right, serving as a director of arts and crafts at a summer camp in Little Switzerland in the 1950s. She could do anything with her hands.”
As an undergraduate at Florida Southern College, Bill kept his fraternity pen in one of his chip-carved boxes on his desk. “One day, a fraternity brother asked how much I would charge to make a box for his girlfriend,” Bill recalled. “By the end of the year, I’d made one for each member of the fraternity and several for some because they kept changing girlfriends!” And thus began his carving career.
After graduating with a degree in math and physics, he worked as a national representative for his fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi. He spent the next three years visiting chapters at colleges and universities throughout the United States; in his spare time, he continued to chip carve.
Soon after beginning this job, Bill met the office manager’s daughter, Donna, who was attending Limestone College and was home for summer break. Her junior year, she transferred to the University of South Carolina where she earned a degree in elementary education. Two weeks after she graduated, Bill and Donna were married in Sumter, S.C. and moved to Lakeland, Fla. where Donna taught first and second grade.
“I worked as a probation and parole officer for the state of Florida; I found the work fascinating, but realized my heart was in carving,” Bill said. “After three years, we left our jobs in Lakeland to move to Boone where I was enrolled in the master’s degree program in industrial arts at Appalachian State University, which was one of the finest programs in the country.”
While Bill was primarily interested in learning how to carve, he also wanted to see if he could make a living using his hands. Little did he know that he would later teach the only carving class offered at ASU at that time. During his first semester, he discovered pottery and ended up taking 27 graduate hours in ceramics, specializing in pottery candle lanterns. That fall, a friend asked him to route a sign for her landlord as a Christmas gift. A year later, Bill was a professional sign carver and potter.
On December 31, 1971, Bill was laying out signs for the residence halls at Lees-McRae College when Donna, who was eight and a half months pregnant with their first child, told him it was time to go to the hospital. “I was so cool,” said Bill. “I just kept laying out signs while she got ready to go. When we returned from the hospital, I started carving the signs only to discover that I’d misspelled every one of them. So I hadn’t been as focused as I thought!”
After graduation in 1972, Bill opened his sign shop and pottery studio in a building halfway up Beech Mountain. At that time, all his signs were routed; during the off season, he produced pottery candle lanterns which were sold at craft fairs. “We attended a lot of craft shows back then. I would route signs on the spot and sell candle lanterns from the same booth,” Bill said. “On occasion, I would take my potter’s wheel for demonstration purposes. I would help children work on the wheel by taking their hands in mine; together we would make a pot. I knew it was a good demonstration when they thought they had done all the work themselves.”
During one demonstration, a young girl with severely gnarled hands watched intently from her wheelchair as Bill worked with other children. She and her mother stayed a long while, observing the process. “Would you like to try it?” Bill asked her. “Oh, no. I couldn’t do that,” she responded while her mother watched from behind the wheelchair. “Try it. I think you can do it,” he encouraged. They moved her wheelchair close to the potter’s wheel. With Bill guiding her small, curved hands, they made a pot which he cut off the wheel and handed to her on a paper plate. She was so excited that she actually hugged the pot, declaring “I knew I could do it!”
In the fall of 1977, Bill moved from the rented shop on Beech Mountain to the three story workshop that he still uses today.
“Two friends helped me build the shop; none of us had any construction experience,” said Bill. “We used 31 beams from an old fertilizer plant which we stood on end. We built the shop around them in three months, using a sledgehammer and chainsaw. I’ve had people say it’s the ultimate workshop, the kind they’d like to have when they retire, so I figure I retired about forty years ago!”
Three or four years after moving into his new workshop, Bill expanded his business to include sandblasted signs. Donna said, “Bill progressed from routing and hand carving to sandblasting signs. Now he does beautiful pieces that are often combinations.”
THE RIVER ROCK LEGACY
Though most of his time is spent carving signs and making pottery, Bill has had the opportunity to be part of some very special projects, one of which began with his son, Dave, joining the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division right after graduating high school .
“I told him that if he was going to jump out of airplanes, then we were making our first jump together,” said Bill. “A month before he left for active duty, we went sky diving. Two years later, Dave was selected to become a member of The Golden Knights, the Army’s elite demonstration parachute team. Now he’s logged over 3,000 jumps and I have nearly 700.”
From Dave’s involvement with the parachute team, came a unique opportunity for Bill to help honor our nation’s fallen soldiers.
Before 9/11, Staff Sgt. Pedro Munoz, a Special Forces soldier of 17 years, was on the parachute team with Dave. On 9/11, Pedro was hiking the Appalachian Trial with a fellow team member. Two days after the attack, a passing hiker told them what had happened.
That night, Pedro said the Pledge of Allegiance and announced that he would be leaving the parachute team and returning to his Special Forces unit, because, he said, “They will need me and we are going to war.” Staff Sgt. Pedro Munoz was the first Special Forces soldier killed in Afghanistan in2005.
One year later, Pedro’s daughter, Dalia, age 17, decided she wanted to create a memorial in honor of her father and the other members of his unit who had been killed in Afghanistan. It would be located at the 1st Battalion 7thSpecial Forces Group Headquarters at Ft. Bragg, N.C.
Dalia asked Bill if this could be done. He assured her that it was possible and he would be honored to do it. She quickly told him that she wanted him to teach her to sandblast so she could complete the project herself.
After several weekend trips to Banner Elk, planning the project from start to finish, Dalia and Bill selected rocks from the Elk River. She then had to clean the rocks, lay out the wording, sandblast and paint the stones.
“Dalia had been sandblasting each rock with the names in all capital letters,” said Bill. “As we were loading the stones into her father’s truck, we noticed that she
had changed the lettering of some names to upper and lower case. ‘Bill, they’re not right!’ she cried. I assured her that they were fine and that no one would notice. She looked up at me with a quivering lip and big crocodile tears welling in her eyes and I knew that we were going back to the river. The next day we selected a fresh batch of rocks and spent the entire day sandblasting them until they were perfect.”
Dalia returned to Fayetteville where she built a beautiful memorial garden on post at Ft. Bragg. Bill was able to attend the ceremony to see her finished project. Two years later, Bill received a call for more rocks; over the next several years a total of 17 rocks were placed in the garden.
“One day I got a call asking for four more rocks and I just groaned,” said Bill. “The officer on the phone said ‘No, it’s a good thing.’ I asked him how that could be good because four more rocks meant four more soldiers had died. He told me this was the only memorial of its kind in the United States Army and because it had been so well received, they had decided to include the names of the four Special Forces soldiers from 1st Battalion, 7th Group who had been killed in action in Vietnam.”
For his work on this project, Bill was honored with a certificate of appreciation from 1st Battalion 7th Special Forces Group, as well as an American flag that once flew over a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan.
One of the most unexpected joys for Bill and Donna was working with IREX students studying in the United States. At that time, the IREX program (sponsored by the US State Department) placed students from former Soviet Union countries for a one year study program at American colleges and universities. Some of the countries have rapidly developed, but many are still very conservative, which often made the transition to a U.S. college or university very challenging.
“One of the neat things about these students,” stated Bill, “is that many of them had never been outside their village, yet they made a commitment to leave their country for nine months to study and live in a new culture. The program is very competitive; those who are selected to come to the United States are top scholars, as well as good ambassadors for their home countries. All of them speak multiple languages and write in several different alphabets.”
When Donna was working as a librarian at Banner Elk Elementary School, a young Lees-McRae College student walked over to borrow materials for a lesson plan she was creating. When the young woman, Donista, gave her contact information, Donna realized that she was not from the United States.
“When I asked her where she was from, Donista smiled as she answered, ‘Tajikistan,’” recalled Donna. “I asked her how long she would be here; she explained the IREX program which was for the current school year. It was already March at that point and the college would be on Spring Break the following week. Donista said she would be staying in the residence halls over break, so I invited her to dinner at our home.”
Two of the three IREX students came to that first meal at the Dicks’ house, where they shared fascinating information about their home countries. “During dinner, Bill asked the girls if there was anything they’d like to do or see before they left in May,” remembered Donna, “and the girls responded that they wanted to go to the beach. Without hesitating or even looking at me, Bill replied, ‘We’ll take you!’ On Palm Sunday weekend, we took all three of them to Charleston.”
After connecting with that first group of students, Bill and Donna were hooked. Each year after that, they helped ensure that the students had all necessary items to make residence hall life comfortable, acted as a confidant and parent, took the students on trips and helped fulfill many lifelong dreams, especially for the female students coming from very conservative countries.
“We’ve had several students from Tajikistan,” said Donna. “Women in Tajikistan aren’t allowed to play sports or swim. One year Mukhlisa desperately wanted to learn how to swim. The week before she left in May, she swam the length of the pool at the YMCA. It was hard to tell who was prouder, Mukhlisa or us! Another girl from Kyrgyzstan became interested in tennis, although she knew nothing about the sport. She made the team at Lees-McRae and by the end of the year was seeded No. 2.”
Though Bill and Donna took the students on many trips, one particular year will always stand out above the rest.
“That year we took five IREX students to Florida,” said Bill. “We went to Sarasota, St. Augustine, Cape Canaveral and Disney World. Later, we also took them to Carowinds, but the icing on the cake was a skydiving trip. Each IREX student got to jump in tandem with a member of the Golden Knights Parachute Team – what an experience!”
Several of the students also enjoyed spending time in Bill’s workshop. He taught them pottery, chip carving, sandblasting and sign painting. Learning to apply gold leaf was particularly fascinating.
“One of the girls would sit with me for hours chip carving a box without saying a word,” said Bill. “I told her that she was lousy company and she told me she was busy working!”
From carving signs and making pottery to sandblasting memorial river rocks and becoming surrogate parents to international students, Bill and Donna Dicks are true gems of Avery County. They are ever modest, but understandably proud of all that they have accomplished, as they should be.