Billboard magnate, entreprenuer Harold Newman dies at age 80
JAMESTOWN — Sign magnate Harold Newman, who painted signs in a garage before turning his venture into a multimillion-dollar company, died Thursday afternoon at his Jamestown home. He was 80 years old.
“We’re very sad, and surprised,” said his daughter, Kari Newman Ness. “We expected to have him with us for many more years. He’s the leader in our family … it’s a big loss for us.”
Newman is believed to have died in his sleep. An official cause of death has not yet been released.
The active businessman’s death took family and friends by surprise after many saw the avid sports fan at University of Jamestown and Jamestown High School sporting events earlier this week.
In Fargo, Newman was well-known for lending his name to Newman Outdoor Field, which is home to the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and North Dakota State University baseball teams. The stadium took Newman’s name after he donated $1.5 million to the NDSU Development Foundation in 1998.
Newman and his wife, Mary, raised five children: Russ Newman of Fargo, Newman Ness of Jamestown, Nancy Erickson of Fargo, Ruth Tang of Excelsior, Minn., and Cheryl Olson of Fargo.
Newman, a native of Mayville, paid for his tuition at Minnesota State University Moorhead by making signs in his mother-in-law’s garage. After graduating from college in 1956, he moved to Jamestown and opened Newman Signs, which grew from a one-man business to a nationwide firm that produces traffic signs, billboards, vinyl posters, banners and fencing.
A pivotal moment for Newman Signs came in 1972 when the company, which had only eight employees, won a major contract to supply highway signs to the state of Minnesota. The contract paved the way for other road sign sales and, over time, the business acquired more than 30 other sign companies.
With headquarters in Jamestown, the company has divisions in Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot, as well as offices in Roswell and Las Cruces, N.M. It’s now one of the 10 largest sign businesses in the country, according to the company’s website.
Newman Ness became CEO of Newman Signs in 2008 and began handling day-to-day operations. However, Newman remained involved in leading the company up until his death, arriving each day at the office after breakfast at a local eatery.
“We bounced ideas off one another,” Newman Ness said. “There were always issues. He’s a terrific leader, and people loved him as much as he loved them.”
The company, which employs about 200 people, is more than just family-owned. Of its 200 employees, many work alongside their own brothers, cousins and/or parents.
A large percentage of employees have been with the company for more than 25 years, including Newman’s secretary, Deb Haar, who will celebrate 40 years with the company this year. The staff loyalty and family atmosphere of the company is something Newman Ness said is attributed to her father.
She said her father invested in people in and out of the company. Friends of Newman said he loved making friends. Whether it a was a waitress at one of his many local haunts where he often dined who knew him by name, or prominent politicians or businessmen, Newman was known to have long conversations with them all.
“Every place he went, everyone would say, ‘Hello,’ “Newman Ness said. “He loved people; he just enjoyed people so much, it didn’t matter who they were.”
Newman Ness said the loss of her father will not change the Newman Signs business model, which will remain a family business.
“Absolutely. It will continue on just like he would have wanted it to,” she said. “We’re equipped to do it like he would want, and that’s what the family wants.”
Newman’s shrewd grasp of marketing shone through in the late 1950s when he led a committee that set out to create an attraction that would draw motorists traveling along Interstate 94. The result was Dakota Thunder, a 26-foot-tall, 60-ton concrete statue known as the World’s Largest Buffalo, which has become a symbol of the city.
Newman, a lifelong reader of nonfiction and a subscriber to local newspaper and national business and industry publications, followed politics closely. As his sign business boomed, Newman occasionally used his billboards to editorialize on issues of the day. In the 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter took away the farmers’ ability to sell wheat to Russia and China, Newman’s billboards that read “North Dakota farmers can’t live on peanuts” became nationally known.
In 2010, Newman’s son, Russ, conceived and designed a pair of billboards that touted Roger Maris, a Fargo native, as baseball’s “Legitimate Home Run King.” The idea came to fruition after Mark McGwire admitted using steroids during the 1998 season when he surpassed Maris’ record by clubbing 70 home runs.
Harold Newman, a lifelong baseball fan, thought Maris deserved a place in the Hall of Fame. “The only legitimate player to break Babe Ruth’s (single season) home run record was Roger Maris. Hopefully this will draw some attention to it,” he said of the billboards.
‘Up and down alleys’
Just last month, Newman was among several business leaders who told The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead about their first jobs. He described how he began selling vegetables with his grandfather, Thor Gidskemo, in the third grade.
“My grandparents owned a 13-acre vegetable farm on the Goose River between Mayville and Portland. They were immigrants from Norway,” Newman said. “We went up and down alleys in Mayville in a horse-drawn wagon selling fresh vegetables. Grandpa always insisted we bring his dog, Trixie, because Trixie was the marketing piece and customers loved that dog.”
Their workday would start at 5 a.m. and stretch into the evening. The experience was Newman’s introduction to the concepts of hard work and profit.
“Grandpa always paid me, but I did the work because I liked spending time with him,” Newman said.
Newman is survived by four siblings, his wife, Mary, five children, 21 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
The Eddy Funeral Home in Jamestown is handling Newman’s services, which have not yet been scheduled.