April 3, 2012

Signs point to McGrath return

by Dave Kitchell

— It took him all of nine months before the finishing touches were made to what is inarguably the most intricate and eye-appealing sign of any kind within 50 miles, if not farther.

Matt McGrath wasn’t about to let that sign fall into disrepair. That explains why a 1975 Logansport High School graduate piled paint brushes, cans and a few clothes into an old van and drove all the way from his New Jersey home back to his hometown three states away.

When McGrath made it home, as he has several times since he left the city for the East Coast, word passed from friend to friend that he had arrived. A newspaper story about his efforts to spruce up the sign was front page news. But the person behind the sign is as much a story as anyone who calls Logansport their hometown.

Matt grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when long hair was in for men and women. When he arrived at Logansport High School in the summer of 1974, he had plenty of it. He was a sousaphone player in the band and played string bass in the jazz band, but he enjoyed playing the harmonica most.

He was and is a Type A personality. He enjoyed music and people, but not in that order. He could be engaging, entertaining and serious — sometimes in the same conversation. But the anecdotes about him are one-of-a-kind.

Once, I was told, Matt entered a basketball game as a young lad. In the closing minute of the game, Matt had played so aggressively, he committed five fouls in a minute and retired to the bench.

He was never shy about volunteering for anything, and once he volunteered to have a part in a halftime show at LHS Stadium. Matt played a bull chasing a Berryette as the band played a Herb Alpert tune, much to the delight of the crowd and the band.

His charm was legendary. The late Margaret Harmon who was a secretary to former Dean Gene Williams, once told me Matt arrived late for school many times, including once when he came into the dean’s office and said, “What can I do for you, Dean Williams?”

In high school, Matt was a survivor who knew struggles and triumphs, but friends more than anything else. He respected achievement and people who cared, and he revered people with talent of any kind. One of his personal favorites was Randy Hanley, a Logansport musician who has recorded albums. His friendship with Hanley is one that continues.

If it’s possible for high school students to have panache, Matt had it.

He once made a dress for his girlfriend out of old men’s ties. After shedding the long hair for a more establishment friendly look that trimmed his hair back to a mustache beneath black-rimmed glasses, Matt showed up at the 1975 prom in high style. He was the only student to arrive with his date in a Rolls Royce. Again, his charm had worked a miracle.

By the time he graduated, Matt was already working on a career as a sign painter. Several downtown businesses had Matt McGrath originals above their doors. It was a fitting way for a local lad with his own signature way of doing things to be creative and be appreciated.

It wasn’t long before others appreciated his creativity and spirit and he moved on to other things.

But last week, when Spring Break broke in Logansport, Matt returned to Logansport. And there on a cool Thursday evening at sunset, he could be seen applying paint with a delicate brush dipped carefuly into a Dixie cup. He was embarrassed at being so glad to see one old friend he left paint stains on his friend’s shirt. Old friends Garry Williams and Rich Voorhees were there to witness the touch-ups he added that made the gold leaf “Carousel” just a bit more golden.

It was proof that true friends never really forget you and you can take the boy out of Logansport, but you can’t take the Logansport out of the boy.

• Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached through the newspaper at