As milestones go, the 25th anniversary of the removal of service club highway signs at the entrance to the city on State Road 46 West probably ranks pretty far down on the scale of important events in Columbus history.
On the other hand, when considering the magnitude of getting the job done, it has to be looked upon as an achievement of Herculean proportions. And it was accomplished largely through the dogged efforts of one man, the late Charlie Hite.
Charlie’s work involved a great deal of arm-twisting and diplomacy with a little bit of shaming thrown in. It paid off on Aug. 4, 1989, when he and members of several other Columbus service clubs looked on as city workers pulled up the stakes on a number of rusting metal signs that declared that Columbus was home to a bunch of Rotarians, Kiwanians, Lions and the Society for the Preservation of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America.
It wasn’t that Charlie harbored ill feelings to service clubs. My goodness, he was a Kiwanian himself. The problem was not with the clubs but with their signs. They made the primary entry into Columbus — one that would a few years later be labeled the city’s “Front Door” — an eyesore.
The service club signs were part of a bigger problem. Seems that everyone wanted to put their pride in something on prominent display on what is known today as Jonathan Moore Pike. At the time, there was little in the way of an approval process for putting up signs alongside major highways. Many of them just appeared.
Bob Stewart, who was mayor of Columbus and a supporter of Charlie’s efforts, remembered one sign in particular that hailed the achievements of every local team that won a state championship “clear back to the Civil War.”
I took a count that year and found there were 25 signs on State Road 46 between the city limit sign and the old Tipton Bridge, which then served both as an entry to and an exit from the downtown.
The signs bugged a lot of other people in addition to Charlie, but raising the subject of their removal was a touchy issue. Who wanted to tell Kiwanians, Rotarians, Lions and lovers of barbershop singing that their signs had to go? What person in their right mind would consider taking down a placard for a local high school team that had won a state championship, even if it was shortly after the Civil War?
Charlie was that man. He lobbied every service club in town to remove their signs. The turning point came when the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs heeded his words. Stewart and the city street crews acted on their own in removing some of the non-service club signs.
The late Denny King, who then was president of the local Rotary Club, announced the demise of the club’s sign in the Oil Can newsletter, bluntly suggesting to critics that “if you have any trouble with this, that’s unfortunate.”
There were attempts at compromise, some suggesting that all the service clubs could put up a single sign, advertising that each of them was in existence in Columbus. Then-Kiwanis Club President Tom Hinshaw responded that his organization “didn’t really care about that. We just want to get rid of those signs out there at the bridge.”
In a sense, the sign removal was a forerunner of the 1990s Front Door project that was intended to turn the western entry to the city into a showcase of natural beauty. The gateway was lined with a beautiful formation of trees, made even more beautiful by a sight line largely devoid of rusting signs.
I’m not sure how Charlie would react to the current condition along State Road 46. Some of the essential markers, such as those identifying the highway or posting speed limits, remain. In the years since the 1989 renewal, other signs have been erected, so-called “pride” signs advertising Columbus as the home of the Four Freshmen and NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. Apparently the current Rotary clubs didn’t get King’s 1989 message. They teamed up to tack the Rotary Club emblem on the Four Freshmen sign.
Even with those additions, the Front Door entry to Columbus from the west is still pretty pristine. For that, we have Charlie Hite to thank.