SAN JOSE -- If the world were perfect, or like a poetry, they'd paint Rey Giese's epitaph in elegant gold leaf outlined by a flawless black border.

That's the way he did it -- day-after-day for decades, on office doors throughout Silicon Valley, beginning long before there was a Silicon Valley. Rey Giese, who died last month at 93, was a sign painter and as much an artist in his way as Renoir, Van Gogh or Gauguin were in theirs.

"Dad was identified with a paint brush in his hand," says Rey's son, Richard Giese. "How fantastic that he found something he loved doing, something someone would pay him to do, and to do it for 78 years."

Not bad.

When I met Rey Giese nearly four years ago, I joked that he was one of the oldest businesses going in Santa Clara County -- started before Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), before Fairchild launched the semiconductor revolution, before the geniuses who commercialized the Internet were born. Hell, before their parents were born in most cases.

But Giese couldn't imagine a world in which he did not paint. Not only was retirement not an option; it wasn't even a concept. He painted signs, the snazzy signs you see painted right on store windows. He painted signs on plywood that went up on buildings. He painted signs -- or city seals anyway -- on fire trucks. He painted signs for public schools and for private eyes.

"You see First Street here?" Giese asked me that first time I met him in downtown San Jose. "In the late '30s, from St. John Street, on both sides of the street, all the way down to San Salvador, I painted every building on both sides."

He painted the signs on them and in them, anyway, and he kept at it until two weeks before he died.

"I guess I was his last sign," says Victor Martinez, owner of Marti's Plumbing Service in Cupertino. Martinez says he'd seen Giese's signs with the painter's distinctive signature all over the valley. And he wanted one for his business.

"I wanted his art," Martinez, 35, says. "I'm kind of an old-school guy."

Giese never left San Jose. He was born in the city and he died of congestive heart failure here, at his home, with his family, including his wife Ruby, whom he married 67 years ago. His family and friends will gather again for a memorial service on Sunday.

Like many artists, Giese got his big break when he was fortuitously discovered while performing. He was 15, Richard Giese says, and painting a butterfly on the window of a bar called The Papillon in San Jose. Neal Bernard, who had a contract painting signs for Shell Oil was taken by the young painter's work.

"Hey kid," Bernard said to Giese. "How'd you like to have a real job?"

It was 1935.

Rey Giese paints a storefront sign at R and J Jewelry and Loan, 2009.
Rey Giese paints a storefront sign at R and J Jewelry and Loan, 2009. (Maria J. Avila)

Giese went to work for Bernard. He later worked for other companies, but for many years he worked for himself, handing out business cards that said, "Rey Giese, Sign Painter."

The man's body of work was staggering. At his home workshop, Giese had a collection of photo albums -- dozens of them -- filled with photos of the signs he'd painted. In the albums you'll find a 1936 shot of a sign he painted at the Shady Grove Service Station in San Jose. Gas was 12.9 cents a gallon. He painted some of the first signs at the Pruneyard, back when it really was a prune yard and the owner was selling the property. He did some work for IBM when it first opened its west coast operations in 1943. Big Blue called him back to do some touch-up work in 1959. Nikita Khrushchev was coming to visit. Giese told me of the time he painted a live circus elephant and a live nude body at a strip shop. No. I didn't ask.

"He did every inch of the old city hall building," Richard Giese says, referring to the signs in San Jose's former seat of government on Mission Street. "Go on Lincoln in Willow Glen. You can see them all over. A lot of school signs. He's done a lot of banks. He's done casinos. You walk around long enough in any business district and you'll see Rey Giese."

Richard Giese figures over the course of his career his father painted nearly 20,000 signs.

That's his tangible legacy. But Rey Giese left us something more. He left us a reminder that work is something to celebrate. It's important to celebrate not just those who get rich from work or become famous because of it. It's important to celebrate the sweat and the passion, the pride of doing it just right or doing it again.

That's how Rey Giese worked.

Though he wanted to paint forever, toward the very end he started to get the idea that maybe nothing lasts that long. It just wasn't as easy as it once was and so maybe it was time. As his family prayed with him the night before he died, Rey Giese was at peace, his son says. And those who were with him were consoled by the thoughts of all he did and all he left behind.

"Dad hadn't painted the town red," Richard Giese says. "He's painted the whole world with a palette of colors."

He painted Rey Giese's world, anyway; and invited all of us to share in it.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.



Rey Giese’

Born: Sept. 25, 1919 in San Jose
Died: April 26, 2013 in San Jose
Survivors: Wife, Ruby of San Jose; Preceded in death by brother Russell Giese; Daughter Sandy Giese and husband Jim Gardner of Los Gatos; Son Richard Giese and wife Geralyn of Cupertino; and four grandchildren.
Services: Sunday at 1 p.m. at The King's Academy, 562 N. Britton Ave., Sunnyvale.
Memorial: Donations may be made to Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford.