Monadnock Profiles: Walt Hautanen has found a passion that lasts a lifetime

  • Walt Hautanen of Jaffrey. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Walt Hautanen of Jaffrey. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Walt Hautanen of Jaffrey. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/28/2021 3:17:09 PM

On an early morning this July, Walt Hautanen was busy in his Jaffrey sign shop carefully, meticulously hand painting each letter on his latest masterpiece.

The sign was for 100+ Women Who Care Monadnock, and Hautanen was giving it the same attention to detail that each and every one of his creations has received over his 61 years in business. With more than six decades under his belt, Hautanen typically doesn’t have to travel very far to see his handiwork. Sometimes they drive right by.

In addition to creating signs for businesses and organizations, a passion that dates back to his high school days at Conant, Hautanen also pinstripes and letters fire trucks, including those in Jaffrey, the town he’s lived in for most of his 82 years.

“When I see a truck drive by that I lettered, that feels good,” Hautanen said.

Hautanen wasn’t the best student – he’ll be the first one to admit that. He was very involved, serving as president of his class and the student council. And what he did enjoy during his time at Conant was the arts. He was a drawer, more in tune with his visual and creative side. There was something about the intricate nature of hand painting a sign and he knew it was a career path that would not only foster his passion, but support him and make others happy.

“You get to know people and you want to see them happy, see them come back,” Hautanen said.

After graduating in 1957, Hautenen enrolled in NHTI, when the school was located in Manchester, with a concentration in commercial sign design. It was a three-year program and it’s the only time Hautanen has lived anywhere else than Jaffrey. Upon graduation, he moved back to his hometown and opened his own shop behind Athens Pizza and started making signs.

The Walt’s Signs operation that most are accustomed to seeing off Route 202 in Jaffrey, as you head out of town toward Rindge, is something Hautanen built after purchasing the adjacent home from his father-in-law after he and his wife Elaine were married in 1967. It cost him just $4,800 to build the 30 by 40-foot shop and if the splattering of paints could tell a story, you’d likely need to pull up a chair and stay a while.

Hautanen remembers seeing his future wife “walking downtown all the time.” Elaine is eight years younger and at the time was working for Bernie Hampsey. One day he asked her out and as Hautanen remembers, “she said ‘no I can’t.’” As he walked away, Hautanen turned around and gave it one more shot. She said yes and they’ve been together ever since.

“I broke her down,” he joked.

Together they adopted two children and then later one of their grandsons. They have lived in the same Route 202 home for more than five decades.

He loves working with a customer, coming up with a design and letting the creative process take over. Seeing a happy customer at the end makes all the time and minute details worthwhile.

When Hautanen first opened his shop it was just him – and it’s remained that way ever since.

“I didn’t want to get big. I wanted to do it myself,” he said.

He likes the freedom and control that owning his own business allows. He can take the time to get it right and doesn’t have to change his ways despite an industry switch to a computer-generated approach. Hautanen is old-school, painting each letter by hand. It’s how he learned and after 61 years in the business, there’s no reason to make the change now.

“I’m computer illiterate,” Hautanen said, although he does use a special camera to blow up images he’s working on.

Hautanen learned the overhand method, where he uses his left hand (bottom) to help slide along a project and steady his right used for painting. It’s what has worked all these years and “until I start shaking” that’s what he’ll do.

He once saw a sign he painted while on vacation in San Diego and even saw a two-sided creation being sold at a downtown Peterborough shop for $500. Elaine does an extensive indoor miniature Christmas village each year and he’s used his craft to turn many of the pieces into recognizable Jaffrey businesses, both past and present. And it’s probably of little surprise that he made the sign that hangs above the entrance to his shop.

Hautanen calls the process of pinstriping and hand painting letters on fire trucks “quite a process.” But it allowed him to branch out in another direction and has traveled to places as far away as Pittsburg (NH) to complete a job.

“I like the truck work, it’s different,” he said.

His dad worked in the factories in Jaffrey and during college, Hautanen did the same at DD Bean. But that wasn’t the future he saw for himself. He needed an outlet for that creativity.

Growing up in Jaffrey, Hautanen has memories that could fill a book. His summer days as a youth were mostly spent at the town ball field with the same group of kids.

“We were down there every day,” Hautanen said. They’d make teams and just play baseball all day until it was time to go home for dinner. As they grew up, Hautanen said the guys learned each other's strengths and weaknesses and soon found a combination on the diamond that worked.

When they got to high school, everyone knew their roles “as we all played the same positions from when we played pick-up ball.” The result? The first baseball  state title in Conant history and a season he will never forget.

In those days, they played all the local schools – Peterborough, New Ipswich, Marlborough. The rivalry with Peterborough was particularly intense, and the only loss that season to their neighbors to the north still stings.

Hauntanen was a junk ball pitcher and pitched the first two games of the playoffs and started the third before being taken out as he had nothing left in the tank. It didn’t matter though, as Hautanen remembered, because Conant had a solid team with everything it needed to take home the championship with a 4-2 win over Littleton in the Class B finals. It was the school’s only title for 57 years until the Orioles captured the 2013 Division III title.

It also wasn’t out of the ordinary to hop on his bike and make the long trek to Derby’s in Peterborough to pick up a new model airplane. That’s just what you did in those days, Hautanen said, leave home in the morning on his bike and return in time for supper.

His father was in the service in World War II and Hautanen knew one day he’d serve his country. He spent eight years in the National Guard and spent many weekends traveling to Watertown, N.Y., to fulfill his obligation. But he never lost sight of his passion and continued to paint signs when he was away.

Every year, Hautanen likes to march in the Memorial Day parade in Jaffrey, an opportunity to celebrate the service to his country with others who did the same.

These days he plays quite a bit of golf as a member of Shattuck Golf Course. He and Elaine play in a couples league and he is also part of the traveling team, going to other courses around the region. He’s an 18 handicap “but it fluctuates,” Hautanen said.

“If I have a good day I'm happy. I’m not worried about the PGA tour,” he said.

He served on the Jaffrey Fire Department for years, rising to the rank of captain, which makes all the lettering work on the company’s trucks even more meaningful.

While Hautanen often wears a red hat that reads ‘Retired’ on the front and ‘Stop asking me to do stuff’ on the back, there’s little chance he will ever call it quits.

“I just get up every morning and come out here,” Hautanen said in his shop earlier this month. So he’ll continue to make the short walk to his shop each day, grabbing the brushes and paints he needs for his latest project. Because he has a job to do and  one that to be perfectly honest, doesn’t really feel like work.


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