Rockdale,TX Class of 1965
Paul Cruz, Jr.
Cruz is the
last name (surname) in
the United States
720 Lakeshore Dr
Grand Junction, CO 81505-1527
440 Independent Ave # 3
Grand Junction, CO 81505-6123
Grand Junction Free Press, Thursday, May 3, 2007
Paul Cruz named Latino Citizen 2007
Grand Junction CO Colorado
Grand Junction — You may have seen them — at the Avalon Theater, the Botanical Gardens Amphitheater, or a club in town. Colorful, elaborate signs emblazoned with the name of bands such as America, Los Lobos, 3 Dog Night or The Temptations.
Paul Cruz has won several awards in his lifetime for his artwork and neon sign business.
Being named Latino Citizen 2007 is the most important one to him, however. It was an honor bestowed upon him last week by the Latino Education Achievement to Graduation program at West Middle School.
Cruz shares his own life experiences to encourage kids to overcome obstacles, find their passions and pursue them.
The neon sign maker was always artistic, but it took an accident in a Texas coal mine more than 30 years ago to lead him to a career in art. As a surface miner, Cruz was caught in a cave-in, and ended up having 36 operations on his legs.
“I considered it a blessing,” Cruz said. “I love what I do (now). There’s a lot of money in coal mining, but life isn’t about money sometimes.”
As a kid, Cruz was always interested in neon signs. He’d walk by cantinas in his central Texas town and be curious about how the light was created. After he was injured, Cruz wrote to the five neon schools in the country at that time. They all wrote back saying they couldn’t teach a disabled man.
“There was one school in Dallas so I went there, and Jake Groom — this old dude — I told him this isn’t good enough,” Cruz said. “What’s it going to take to get you to teach me neon?”
Groom relented, after Cruz agreed he wouldn’t sue if he got injured.
“He became a wonderful mentor,” Cruz said.
A career in Colorado
Sixteen years ago Cruz moved to Grand Junction from Austin, Texas — where he designed signs for the many bands that played in a city renowned for its music. His wife Sandy is a Grand Junction native. She teaches gifted and talented students at Wingate Elementary. They have two grown children in Texas, and a daughter in Grand Junction who attends Mesa State College.
It wasn’t long before Cruz started designing and making neon signs for bands in Grand Junction.
“Ron Wilson (of Sandstone Entertainment) helped me a lot, getting me introduced to these bands. He’s a wonderful friend,” Cruz said.
At The Neon Factory you’ll find signs — some lit up — of bands like War, Kansas, The Drifters and George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
New Orleans Cajun blues artist Tab Benoit’s sign is shaped like an alligator with Benoit’s signature inside made from bended glass.
“Each one is personal. I go with what I feel about the band,” Cruz said. “What I did for George (Thorogood) was a full-blown cobra wrapped around the guitar. He went crazy. He put it on his Web site.”
Each artist autographs Cruz’ preliminary sketchwork to prove the sign is an original.
Cruz remembers when George Thorogood began singing “Bad to the Bone,” at a Grand Junction concert.
“They lit up the neon piece and the place went crazy,” Cruz said. “Usually they just have a banner; I light them up.”
And since the bands can’t take the huge signs with them on the plane, Cruz ends up with his own little gallery. Which makes his shop an interesting place to visit. In addition to the signs there’s a beautiful low-rider bike he made because of a $10 bet. He’s in the process of building another custom bike, which he says is a replica of an 1890 chuck wagon.
Cruz gives tours of his shop to approximately 500 students each year.
“It’s been really fun. Kids are so inquisitive. They don’t realize (the signs) are handmade. I invite them to bend glass and they get to take it home with them,” Cruz said.
Sending a positive message
Cruz also works with various sign companies in town. He did the neon portion for Big J Jewelry and Loan’s sign, and the Cabaret Theater sign. He also designed Boomer’s logo.
In 1994, Sign Business magazine chose The Neon Factory as one of the top 10 shops in the U.S.
The Business Times newspaper gave Cruz the “Business of the Year” award several years ago.
In 2002, the Grand Junction Commission on Arts and Culture gave Cruz the Business in the Arts award.
The 2007 Latino Citizen award is what humbles him the most however.
Every year, Cruz is invited to come speak to Latino students as part of La Jornada (the journey) “a day in the life of a Latino,” — a program designed to motivate and inspire Latino youths. This year the program solicited nominations for a Latino Citizen of the year award. Parents and West Middle School L.E.A.G. liaison Connie Jiron selected Cruz from a slew of good candidates, said Jiron.
“He takes his past, his experiences, and breaks them down for my students,” Jiron said. “He gives positive messages on how to create things with their own imagination.”
“When I talk to kids I always tell them if you have a passion in life, explore that passion before you give up and do what everybody else does. If possible, do what you really want to do in life. Me, I got a second chance,” Cruz said.
A few years ago 700 kids joined him downtown for a street art project. Cruz invited school kids to bring a piece of art to hang on a sail he’d made from chicken wire and then had attached to a wooden boat.
“We had so much artwork,” Cruz said. “The sail was completely full. Then we started hanging it on the boat. Then I put neon on it and lit it up.”
“He’s always been a good, positive role model. I tell my students everyday they need to find heroes in the community,” Jiron said. “Paul Cruz is a hero.”
Reach Sharon Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Sharon Sullivan for permission to republish this article
photo caption: Paul Cruz heats and bends glass to make his creative neon signs at The Neon Factory. Cruz was named Latino Citizen 2007 last week.