Jack Nethen, 76, executive of firm that lighted many local landmarks

March 10, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Jack Nethen, a sign company executive who lighted the Edmondson Village Shopping Center for the holidays and kept the Gayety's neon dancers kicking, died of cancer Saturday at Howard County General Hospital. The Glen Burnie resident was 76.

The secretary-treasurer of Claude Neon Signs in Cherry Hill, he was the second generation of his family to make and install well-known local theater marquees, shopping center pylons and lighted advertising devices passed by motorists daily.

Born John A. Nethen, but known as Jack, the Baltimore native was raised in Pigtown. In a Sun story last year, he recalled pigs being unloaded from trains and then herded along city streets to South Baltimore slaughterhouses. He said he and his friends would hide in his family's coal bin and pilfer a pig as it ran by.

"We'd have good eating for a while," he said in the article.

In a separate story, he recalled watching his father, Adolph Nethen, repair the old metal Bromo-Seltzer bottle atop the Emerson Drug Co.'s tower at Lombard and Eutaw streets. Mr. Nethen also saw his father remove the bottle in 1935.

After his 1944 graduation from Polytechnic Institute, Mr. Nethen enlisted in the Navy and was trained as a turret-ball gunner on a torpedo bomber.

In 1946, he joined the family business, then located in the 800 block of S. Hanover St. in what is now the Otterbein neighborhood. The shop was so crammed that Mr. Nethen and his co-workers had to edge large signs and theater marquees out the front door and stop Hanover Street traffic so they could turn the metal panels to paint them.

In a 1989 Evening Sun story, he recalled having his workers thread thousands of tiny white electric lights through the branches of sycamore trees facing Edmondson Village Shopping Center. He and family members, each standing at switches spread throughout the center's grounds and in store basements, used stopwatches. At the set hour, the center's exterior display flashed on as a unit, to the honks of assembled motorists who waited annually in the 1950s and 1960s on Thanksgiving night for the light show to begin.

His firm made the signs for two shopping centers built in the 1950s, Mondawmin and Harundale, as well as nearly all of Baltimore's downtown, neighborhood and drive-in theaters. As a younger man, he serviced the neon tubing on The Block's Gayety burlesque house's animated sign. He recently worked on the paperwork for the removal of the Hamilton neighborhood's Arcade marquee.

Mr. Nethen was the former president of the Advertising and Professional Club of Baltimore, the Maryland Sign Contractors and the Eastern State Sign Council.

"Jack joined many organizations and everybody who came in touch with him soon liked him," said Gerald Kavanagh, a friend and retired American National Savings Bank senior vice president. "He was dependable, honest and loyal to his friends."

"He couldn't do enough for you," said Clarisse B. Mechanic, owner of the Charles Center theater that bears the name of her late husband, Morris A. Mechanic, who was a close friend. "Jack was very productive. He was no-nonsense and always got a lot accomplished."

Mr. Nethen, a charter member of Milford Mill United Methodist Church in Pikesville, was a volunteer at North Arundel Hospital and worked nights in the emergency room, often soothing persons waiting for treatment or word of their sick relatives.

"They had to throw him out at midnight -- he so liked being with people," said his son, Jan F. Nethen of Whiteford.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Chapelgate Presbyterian Church, 2600 Marriottsville Road, Marriottsville.

Other survivors include another son, Gary K. Nethen of Manchester; a daughter, Claire Hetrick of Ellicott City; two brothers, Robert Nethen of Ocean City and Alan Nethen of Pasadena; two sisters, Anna Lee Fuller of Wakefield, Kan., and Bonnie Howatt of Pasadena; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Mary Ellen Gathercole, died in 2000. His previous marriage to the former Lucille Kamka ended in divorce.

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