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GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. (CAP) - If you drive a car, chances are pretty good that you've been stuck in traffic created by road construction. And if there was no police detail to help you figure out the maze of cones and barrels, chances are pretty good a well-designed road sign helped you find your way.
Chances are also pretty good that 71-year-old architectural engineer Dirk Ritter invented that road sign.
"They say Minnesota has two seasons: winter and road construction," Ritter said as he sat down for a chat with CAP News at his Grand Rapids home. "So I've certainly had plenty from which to draw inspiration. I just never knew the business could be so lucrative."
Ritter, decked out in a black I'm With Stupid t-shirt with the word Stupid scratched out in favor of a Detour road sign decal, is a man of modest means. Rows and rows of road signs line the walls of his Cape, including everything from early prototypes of our modern One Way sign to a 50th anniversary commemorative edition black and white Stop sign.
"No, I didn't invent the Stop sign, that was William Eno," Ritter responded to a CAP News query of same. "I met him a couple years before he died, and it really was an inspiration. What an amazing, amazing man."
In 1954, the American Association of State Highway Officials commissioned 17-year-old Ritter to redesign the Stop sign and after months of agonizing over various color combinations and lettering fonts, he settled on our current white-on-red. Soon Ritter was offering up tweaks of existing road signs and inventing new ones whereever he saw the need.
"For every Deer Crossing or Low Flying Planes sign that I came up with, there were another 50 that just didn't catch on," Ritter said. "Heck, it took state highway departments a good 25 years before they started using my Road Surface May Be Uneven sign.
"How many flat tires or broken axles might have been saved had they moved just a little quicker?" Ritter lamented.
While technically retired, Ritter is still known to occasionally put pen to paper in the hopes of coming up with the next Left Turn Yield On Green or Gas Food Lodging, both of which helped him land federal road sign contracts. But he knows the days of the solo inventor are numbered.
"Between computers and bureaucratic committees and state workers just looking for a paycheck, there's no one to really carry the torch for road signs," said Ritter. "Where's the drive, where the passion to create something that speaks to people on an individual level?"
That drive, that passion - it's with Dirk Ritter, that's where it is. Always has, always will be.
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