Gettng former Green Bay Packers player Jerry Kramer into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the goal of a group of fence painters in Green Bay. (Sept. 13, 2014)
Chris Handler is hanging up his brushes and paint can; there are no new fences to conquer.
You may think you don’t know Handler, but you’ve probably seen him around. He’s the "Packer Fence Painter." Certainly, you’ve seen his handiwork: the green and gold motto painted every year on one of the fences across from Lambeau Field. The motto almost always was a goofy pun based on a player’s name.
And Handler himself was hard to miss. He’d be at all the home games, presiding regally over the tailgaters in his enormous Fence Painter hat, probably five feet wide, with sections of fence sticking out on both sides. It made him look like Bullwinkle the Moose from a distance. I always imagined what it must have been like sitting next to him at a game: if a play went all the way downfield, the guy on Handler's left would get a whack in the back of the head, while the guy on his right would get biffed in the face. It’d be like sitting in a turnstile.
Not really. Handler always doffed his hat inside the stadium. But in the parking lot, you’d often see him in full costume near the other costumed guys, like the one in the bishop’s miter or the one in the retro Packers helmet: they were like the Justice League of America, costumed crusaders fighting fan apathy and unpainted fences everywhere. Out-of-town fans would pose for pictures with them. Beer often posed, too.
Well, Handler is done with it. St. Vince and Acme Packer can have it; Handler is calling it quits.
I don’t know how you feel about costumed crusaders. Maybe they annoy you. Who are these self-appointed mascots, and where do they get off commanding attention for themselves, anyway? Or maybe you take your football so seriously that it irritates you that someone can demean the sport with such silliness.
I never understood it myself, but I’m kind of with Handler on this one: What good is being the smallest city in the NFL if you can’t sustain goofiness, arrested development and middle-aged men in costumes?
Handler has been at it for 15 years, long enough for it to have become part of his identity. People see him on the street and say, "Hey, you're the fence painter guy!"
A handyman and painter in real life — not the subtlest alter-ego for a superhero, I suppose — he calls himself the Packer Fence Painter on his business cards. The side of his panel truck is emblazoned with a picture of him in his moose-antlers hat; his website, thepackerfencepainter.com, has been a part of his business. It even got him the job of painting the famed Receiver Statue and making it into Donald Driver.
You’ve got to think it’s at least a little sad to have the fence pulled right out from under a guy like that.
Handler got into this racket because he’s a rabid fan and because he volunteered. A homeowner put out the word 15 years ago for someone to take on the chore. For Handler, who as a boy snuck into Packers games by climbing the fence, it was an easy transition to go from fence jumper to fence painter.
The friends and family of the property owner for Handler’s first fence decided to go in a different direction a few years back, but Handler quickly found another property owner who was happy to maintain the tradition. That guy eventually sold off the property, and the new owner had other ideas.
Handler zeroed in on a third site and painted it, but then the property owner moved the fence to a side yard and put up an unpaintable brick fence in its place.
This year, Handler was all set to do another fence. He was just about to put out the call for suggested slogans when the property owner had a last-minute change of heart.
Handler is 61, not ready to retire. He’ll still paint living rooms, change storm windows, clean out eavestroughs and do whatever other handyman jobs he can get. But he’s come to the end of the fence-painting part of the career.
Basically, people just don’t want their fences carrying silly slogans anymore. The Packers have become big business and are spilling out into the neighborhood, with new businesses, newer, fancier homes, Packers party houses. There's a home going for $1 million in the neighborhood now.
"To me, that's not homegrown soup," Handler says.
He figures in another 10, 15 years, there’ll be nothing around the stadium but more parking and high-rise hotels.
“I always thought in 20 or 30 years I’d still be doing this in my wheelchair,” Handler says. “That’s how I thought about it. It’s a sad time for me. The paints are all there, but there’s nothing to paint.”
I told him he should paint fences for the Jets and Vikings for a while. He got a kick out of that, but he won’t do it.