The search for Johnny Ford: Former area resident seeks information about sign painter at Bakalar

Harry G. Campbell

Photos provided

A former Greensburg resident whose father worked at the air base in Columbus is looking for a lead to locate a sign painter from his past.

According to a Facebook post from Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum, Nicholas Campbell — now a resident of Atascadero, Calif. — reached out to them looking for information about a sign painter named Johnny Ford who worked at Bakalar Air Force Base (now Columbus Municipal Airport) around 1951 to 1957.

The museum shared part of Campbell’s email, in which he said that his father, Harry Guinn Campbell, was a foreman who oversaw the painting of military buildings and worked with Ford. Campbell wrote that he was interested to know what became of the sign painter, who also painted two portraits of his parents.

He told The Republic that the family still has these portraits, which were painted in the 1950s.

“Every once in a while, I look at them and I can’t help but wonder what else he painted,” Campbell said. “Is there any existing paintings of his other than portraits? Was this just something that he did because my father shared an office with him?”

Campbell wrote in his note to the museum that the family would also like to have a photo of Ford. Growing up, he would sometimes go to work with his father and Ford would be there, painting signs. He was very kind, Campbell remembers.

Museum President Nick Firestone said that the post has reached thousands so far and the number kept increasing.

“Right now, it hasn’t got the kind of result that I would like, though it has gotten a wide circulation,” Firestone said. He had hoped that sharing it on social media would help with the search.

Later that night, Donna Cleland Kuhlman commented with a link to the website “Find a Grave.”

According to the site, one John D. Ford who died in 1985 was a former employee of Bakalar Air Force Base and also worked as an artist and sign painter. The profile on Ford, which cites the Greensburg Daily News as a source, states that he was born on Jan. 5, 1918 in Greensburg and died, unmarried, at the Margaret-Mary Community Hospital of Batesville. Ford was a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and is buried in the church cemetery.

Campbell was born in Greensburg in 1949 and attended St. Mary’s Catholic School. His family moved to Anderson, Ind. in 1960 and California shortly after that. He was surprised by the possibility that Ford not only worked with his father but also lived in the same community.

“I never thought that Johnny Ford was actually someone who lived in Greensburg,” he said. “I always thought that maybe he lived in Columbus.”

In looking at a phone book from 1954, Campbell found that John Ford lived on Broadway in Greensburg during the 1950s. Per the obituary on Find a Grave, John D. Ford was a “former Greensburg resident” who lived in Oldenburg for the last two years of his life.

The online profile includes a photo that appears to be a scanned newspaper clipping of Ford tracing a firebird eagle design on a car in order to paint a similar decal on another vehicle. His hair appears to be gray or white, and he has a thick mustache, but much of his face is obscured by aviator glasses. It is unclear which paper this photo ran in and when.

In considering his own memories of Ford’s appearance, Campbell said, “I don’t remember him to be a big man or anything. I remember him being maybe about 5’8”, maybe he was only about 5’7”. … When you’re a kid, everybody looks older. He may have only been in his 40s at the time, put on some slight weight, a little weight. Very good-natured guy. I remember him having dark hair, brown hair.”

He doesn’t remember Ford having a mustache.

“John Ford, sign painter of Greensburg” is mentioned in a Greensburg Daily News article from June of 1945. According to the article, he and a Mrs. Don Smith of Westport contributed to the lettering on caps worn by Decatur County Canteen workers as they served servicemen and women on trains.

There are also a couple of references to a John Ford in old copies of the The Evening Republican. One article from March of 1958 covers Bakalar Air force base being honored for its fire protection program. Fire Chief Kenneth St. John commended a number of individuals for their work, including John Ford, “an artist whose effective chalk talks and fire prevention posters were ‘indispensable in our fire prevention program.’”

Another article, from October of that year, mentions Ford giving one of his chalk talks as part of Fire Prevention week. He is described as an artist and sign painter in the air installation engineer’s office at Bakalar.

Campbell’s father was a house painter and foreman.

His father painted the buildings on the Columbus airbase, which people used to call “Columbus Air Foce Base” or “Fort Atterbury.”

“He painted all the buildings … whenever it was needed,” he said. “Inside, interiors and exteriors, too. And Johnny Ford, of course, did all the sign painting.”

According to museum records, Bakalar Air Force Base was originally known as Atterbury Air Base and opened in 1943. It was renamed at a formal dedication ceremony in November of 1954 in honor of First Lieutenant John Edmond Bakalar.

“My most vivid memory of him (Ford) was once, when some officer — an Air Force officer, I assume — accidentally poked my father in the eye while telling a story,” Campbell said. “He was sitting in a vehicle. And my father had a very short temper. And my father pulled out of the window of the vehicle, got him on the ground, and they were fighting.”

Campbell, about 7 by his estimate, was at his father’s desk, stapling papers, when Ford said, “Nicky, come here, your father’s fighting.”

He recalls being “greatly embarrassed” but shrugging the event off, telling Ford he’d “seen better fights on television.” Campbell believes his father likely left the air base not long after the fight.

While that was his clearest memory of Ford, Campbell also recalls watching him at the easel.

“At 72 years of age, you look back and you wish you would’ve been more cognizant,” he said. “How could I have been, at 7 or 8? But you wish you would’ve been more aware and walked around with a camera or something and taking photographs of people. … There’s so much we miss over the long years. So it’s basically just something very human. I think that some of us, when we become of advanced age, that we tend to want to understand, want to have some evidence that we actually — that these things actually happened.”