Grandma’s jigsaw puzzle of the United States – one that identified every state of the union – apparently made quite an impression on little Gene Alexander. He fondly recalls working his grandmother’s puzzle even as a child of four or five. “I loved to put that thing together,” he remembers. “I knew all of my states before I could even read. I knew them by shape and location.”
More than seven decades later, the retired grade school principal is still playing with maps, only on a larger scale. Since 1991, Alexander (better known as “Mr. A”) has been painting large U.S. maps on playgrounds, patios and parking lots across the lower half of Illinois and in neighboring states. It’s a retirement hobby he has undertaken with a sense of mission, pride and charity.
“I retired in 1990 for health reasons,” the 80-year-old Benton resident says. “After a while, my health started improving and I told Dr. Allan Patton, who was my superintendent, that I wasn’t really enjoying retirement very much.”
Patton told Alexander that he had a kit for a large outdoor map of the country and that it would give him something to do, asking him to paint one at what was then Grant School on the north side of Benton. That was 313 outdoor maps ago.
“After doing the first one, I realized that I liked it and it was a cool idea, so I just kept doing them,” Alexander says. For nearly a quarter of a century, Mr. A has been painting maps. “After a while I had painted all that I could in Benton so I started to reach out and go to nearby towns, getting the word out that I would make these, and do it for free.”
Since the original map kit has long since worn out, Alexander now uses a template of his own creation. “The first kit was basically giant sheets of paper where you spray-painted through holes,” he explains. “Later, I replaced it with four sheets of plastic which I made into a sort of stencil. What I do today is layout these panels, usually starting with the northern one which covers from the state of Washington to Maine. I weigh it down with boards and then chalk in the shapes of the states. I have four panels like this and then once I get it all chalked, and make sure it looks like the United States, I paint in all of the states.
He says he uses normal house paint with some sand mixed in for the map, being careful to make sure adjacent states are in different colors, then marking the borders with white paint. “After finishing the states, I’ll come back in a day or two to do the white lines between the states,” he adds. “Those make the colors stand out artistically, and make it so the kids can see the shapes of the states better, so it’s well worth the effort to do that.”
The completed maps are about 25 feet wide and each is marked with Alexander’s moniker, “Mr. A” along with the year it was painted and the sequential number of the maps he has completed. He picks up the costs of each project on his own, although many recipients will donate toward his next project. In those cases, he adds the sponsoring group to his signature block.
“I recently painted a map in Mt. Carmel, and last fall I had been doing one at a grade school in Marissa where they had given me a generous donation, so I put a notation on the Mt. Carmel map: “Paint donated by Marissa Grade School – Pay it Forward.”
Over the years he has painted maps for grade schools, park districts, day care centers, nursing homes, churches, libraries and even some private businesses. His work can be seen from Perryville, Mo. to Paducah, Ky. and as far north as Mahomet. Regardless of the location, the maps are always a hit.
“The map has been a wonderful addition to our facility,” says Randy Osborn, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Carbondale. Alexander painted a map for the organization in 2007. “We came up with all sorts of geography-related activities. None of the states have names on them, so we challenge the students to run to a state that begins with the letter “A” for example. It’s a great part of the club.”
Alexander even offers to return to repaint maps whenever touch-up is necessary. He says a re-painting takes about six hours, compared to the nine hours needed for a brand-new map. He often reaches out to the places where he has painted before, offering his services again and asking for assistance in finding new places to paint the states.
“I’m always sending out letters to places about possibly doing maps. I’m available,” he says with a chuckle. He says he has no plans to put away his paint brush any time soon. “I’m going to do this as long as I can. I get to go places where I’ve never been before, meet wonderful people and do something special for them. It is a good feeling at my age to still have something to contribute to the educational process.”
For more information or to invite Mr. A to paint a map in your community:
P O Box 5
Benton, IL 62812
Or you may leave a message for him at Benton Grade School, (618) 439-3136.
Above photo courtesy of The Southern Illinoisan.