Remembering John Meyer: A Conversation with Tonnie and Martin Boer
Meyer Sign has enjoyed a rich history spanning more than half a century…and it all started with an immigrant from Holland who believed in the American Dream before he even set foot with his young family on Ellis Island.
To call John Meyer a “survivor” is an understatement. He survived forced labor internment in Nazi Germany. He survived a dangerous escape back to his home in Holland. He survived exploits as a member of the Dutch Resistance that could very easily have cost him his life. He survived heart attack and numerous health crises.
But John Meyer did more than survive. He thrived. Rather than imbue him with a sense of self-importance, overcoming adversity stamped his character with optimism, self-sufficiency, and a deep and abiding love of family and community. In short, it made him a model immigrant to this country — and an ideal entrepreneur.
What follows is a remembrance of the man who founded Meyer Sign & Advertising. Now in its third generation of local ownership, our company proudly bears the name of the man who embodied the values we continue to live by: honesty, fairness, pride in what we do, and a genuine respect for our employees and customers. We’d like to think that if John were with us today he’d be pleased by how far we’ve come…and by how much we’ve stayed the same since his passing nearly 20 years ago.
In this interview with John’s daughter and son-in-law, Tonnie and Martin Boer, they recount some of the stories of his life that define his legacy, starting with his experiences during WWII and his subsequent immigration to the United States with his wife and three young children…one of whom was Tonnie.
Tonnie: I heard quite a bit about the war from my father, and about how he got picked up (by the Nazis) and how sick he became in Germany. How hard it was for him. And how he planned his escape and barely made it.
When he escaped, he picked a train that had all these Germans on it, so he bandaged up his hands so that it looked as if he was injured, and that was why he was going home. During his escape from Germany he had to get across the border, and there were guards shooting at him. As he was running he remembered from the cowboy movies he’d seen that you were supposed to zig-zag, and that’s what he did. He made it without getting shot, and then sat for ten minutes just catching his breath…he had run so hard. Different people helped him get home. He was 21 years old at the time.
Martin: Can you imagine being 21 and going through an experience like that? It’s almost incomprehensible. There was another story he told of when he would pick up and deliver things for the Resistance. He painted a Dutch flag on the top of his rig because the Canadians would strafe vehicles on the road. They assumed that no Dutch were driving, because nobody had cars (except the Germans), so he painted the flag so they wouldn’t shoot him. He would hear them come down, see the flag, and then fly on. There was one time when the engine suddenly blew up in his car, and just as he was wondering what had happened, he saw the bullets hitting. He was being strafed. He survived that.
Tonnie: He would tell stories about what he had to do to take care of his family, and how considerations of right and wrong took a backseat to survival. You might have to lie…you might have to steal. People were desperate. Was the war traumatic for my father? I never saw that in him…not like it affected other people. I would ask my parents about that, and my mom said, “We were young enough and we had our lives in front of us…so we just moved on.”
Coming to America
Tonnie: During the war my father’s cousin (Henry Vander Pol), who was his age, came to Holland. He spoke Dutch quite well and was an American soldier. They somehow traveled aground together and became close friends…and my dad became interested in moving to America. After the war, Holland was becoming a more socialist country, and my father liked the idea of the freedoms in America. In fact, it was always a pet peeve that our freedoms were being gradually taken away. You had to have a sponsor to immigrate, and our aunt in Lynden became our sponsor.
Coming to America was very traumatic for me as a child. I was eight years old. We didn’t know any English. We had lived right next door to our grandparents in Holland, and it was so hard for me to leave them. The family had arranged for somebody to meet us in New York, but there was nobody there. We were the last ones standing there at Ellis Island. We didn’t speak any English and we didn’t know what to do…but actually I was okay because I knew I was with my parents and that my dad would take care of it. We had landed during the night, and in the morning my dad showed us the Statue of Liberty, and he took a picture of us. I still have that picture.
“We had landed during the night, and in the morning my dad showed us the Statue of Liberty, and he took a picture of us.” — Tonnie Boer
My dad had a lot of cousins here (in the Skagit Valley), and they took us in right away. We were just part of their family. My sister and I went to the Christian school. She was in the first grade and I was in the third grade. In about two or three months I would say that we were able to speak pretty good English because we were immersed. There was a daughter of one cousin that was quite good at languages and she took us under her wing and helped us. She was a year older than me. My mom and dad would always ask and learn from us. The were very motivated to learn the language and fit in.
My father’s cousins helped by finding the first job he had here, working for a sign painter, P.W. Connell — although before that he had worked on a farm in Lynden for two weeks digging potatoes. My dad’s family were painters and wall paperers, and my dad had studied lettering in school and had a diploma. It was a small company — just the boss and him. He was surprised that the first thing his boss would do when he got to his house was to go out for coffee in town. He just wanted to get to work. P.W. had been talking about retiring and selling the business to my dad, but it just never happened, so after five years my dad finally started his own business, and P.W. quit shortly after that.
My parents were very competent people. Dad was always ready to tackle whatever. He’d say, “We might have to live in a bus for awhile, but it will be okay…we’ll make do.” My mom was a wonderful seamstress and she always made sure that we looked good, and she was a good cook. Looking back, I think we were a little on the poor side…but I never felt poor. I had everything that I needed.
After they had been here for five years my parents took citizenship classes and became naturalized because they wanted to vote and be Americans. All of us kids who were born in Holland became citizens because we wanted to be Americans. We were here and we weren’t looking back. We wanted to be a part of this country. We were never on any welfare or government services. We had sponsors who helped us become self-sufficient.
Martin: Tonnie’s family had such a strong foundation. They were all rock solid. All they needed to do was to maintain the goodness that they had. When I first saw Tonnie I knew that this was the kind of girl that I wanted to be with. It was at a church youth group. I was 16 and she was 14. I didn’t find out until years later that she was also interested in me. One time we were at a skating party and I asked her if I could take her home and she said she would have to ask her dad. Someone else had already asked to take her home and he said no, but he said okay when she asked if I could. We dated on and off for a period of time, and when I was 17 or 18 we got more serious. We married when she was nearly 20 and I was 21. I knew Tonnie’s mom liked me, but I wasn’t sure about John. He wasn’t going to let me get away with much.
Martin: My family had a dairy, so Tonnie was going to be a farmer’s wife. After we were married John really embraced us. Having a domineering father as a role model, I saw what a good marriage should look like with John and Trina (Tonnie’s mom). I was bound to my family by duty, but bound to John’s family because it was fun. For years we got together every Saturday night for banana splits. I had no sense of self worth on the farm. I was just somebody that my dad felt that he owned. I went and asked John if he would consider hiring me, that I could work well with my hands. I know that it was a risky decision for John to make.
I probably frustrated John because I’m a perfectionist, and when I build something I build it to last and it had to look perfect. John was more of a “let’s get it done, we have to get going” kind of guy — but we wound up melding. He was an extrovert and did all the things as a business owner and left me alone to do what I had to do. I could look at a sketch and see exactly what had to be constructed as though it were a detailed blueprint. He came to appreciate that talent, and we got along really well. He was a good guy to work for. He was fair, and I really admired and appreciated who he was.
He had a massive heart attack after I had worked for him for four years and his doctor told him that if he wanted to be around for his grandkids he would need to sell the business. He pulled us aside and asked us if we wanted to buy a business. I was 25 years old and had no education in running a business — buying, selling, ordering. I knew how to build things, but Tonnie had been working for John since she was a junior in high school. We agreed on a price, had a one-page contract written up, and bought it on July 1 — and on July 12 our first child was born.
John continued to take an active role in the business, and people still thought that he owned it. The transition was a very slow one. John did the sales and I did the work. There were four people in the business at that time, and Tonnie eventually took over the bookkeeping as well. John pushed us into the computer age.
There was a point when I began to realize that John was pulling back and I would need to up my game. I think he realized that his time might be growing short. I recognized that we filled a certain niche, and that this was changing and we would need to evolve. That started a movement to upgrade as we could afford it. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to move the business into the next phase as a sign company.
Martin: John’s greatest sources of joy were his wife, his family, and his church. He appreciated life. Work was a by-product of what you did to enjoy your family. John was a sign guy, but he did so many different things. He and another guy built the first time and temp sign in the Skagit Valley — it might have been one of the first anywhere. He had a miniature horse farm and he had a searchlight business. He built one of the first motor homes from a chassis and a set of plans that he’d bought. But he always took Saturdays off so he could do fun things with his family.
John was active in the community. He was in Kiwanis and a lot of people knew him. All the guys knew him, and all the women hugged him. He was not a threatening personality, and he was a good looking guy with wonderfully curly hair and a great sense of humor who loved a good prank. For example, I was taking golf lessons, and for my fiftieth birthday John convinced the pro to present me with a trophy as the most improved player in Skagit Valley. He even had the paper come take a picture of the presentation of the trophy and print it. It was this really dorky trophy. It turned out to be a joke, and my ego took a shellacking after that. It was a well done prank — and Boyd Bode told that story at John’s funeral service.
John’s legacy was that he was a genuine person. What you saw is exactly what you got, and he would tell it to you straight. That was reflected in his family and in the people that he knew. It sounds trite in this day and age, but you could count on him. I learned how to celebrate birthdays and go on vacations from John. I miss him.
Tonnie: My dad had a lot of physical problems going back to when he was in the war, but when people asked him how he was he would always answer, “Couldn’t be better.” Growing up, I was proud to be an immigrant — it gave me something special to be from another background.
Martin: John and Trina embraced everything about being Americans and they gave back through the business, church, and community. Money for John was a by-product, not the ultimate goal. It never defined him. John never looked at someone else’s wealth or prestige. It didn’t matter to him. He didn’t need the trappings of the country club or society. Accolades never went to his head. He had an incredible sense of self-worth. He wasn’t a wealthy man by today’s standards, but he had five daughters that he truly loved, a woman that he loved, and he considered himself to be very rich. He carried himself that way, no matter who he met. I was blessed to have married into this family.