‘The Sign Lady’ at the Briarcliff Congregational Church
Across from Briarcliff Manor’s Law Park–home of our town’s pool, tennis courts, pavilion, ball fields, and playground–is the Briarcliff Congregational Church (BCC) Parish House. This small, unassuming building sits in one of the busiest intersections in Briarcliff. However, there is a constantly changing roadside sign in front of the building which makes getting stuck sitting at the light on the corner of Pleasantville and South State Roads a source of enjoyment and inspiration for many.
Personally, throughout my 12 years living in Briarcliff, the BCC sign has been a source of anticipation for me, as I never know what to expect as I drive by. Certain messages have made me laugh out loud like, “Procrastinators Unite! Let’s Have a Meeting. Maybe Next Year?” and “Gardening Is Cheaper Than Therapy And You Get Tomatoes.” Others have been a source of reflection on my own personal challenges such as, “Just Because Someone Carries It Well Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Heavy” and “Life Is Too Short To Wear Uncomfortable Shoes.” Then there are the messages that lead to family discussions over dinner including, “Compassion May Help When Justice Fails” and “Banning Books? Not a Single Child Has Died From A Mass Reading.” Finally, there are the messages that make me feel proud to live in a town that celebrates acceptance. For example, “Juneteenth, America’s second Independence Day” and “Every Human Encounter Is A Meeting of Equals.”
For years, I often would let my imagination wander when I pictured how the messages are determined. Perhaps it is the Pastor, a custodian, or a committee of church members. However, I wondered if knowing more would take away the mysticism of this beloved sign. It was this reason I would always put finding out on the backburner. Only recently was I finally ready to see how the wider Briarcliff Community felt about the sign, and while both hesitant and excited, I also felt ready to identify the creator and how the messages were devised.
When I asked the Briarcliff Community for thoughts about this sign, the reaction was overwhelmingly helpful and encouraging. I received both public and private messages on social media about how much the sign and its messages mean to our residents. Community residents such as Mei Morris, shared, “I’m thrilled the author of these witty signs is finally being recognized! The humor, humanity, humility, and inclusivity that generally accompany the messaging are inspiring and uplifting.” Robyn Wild, Briarcliff resident, and member of the BCC, perfectly summed up the messages saying, “I love the quotes on the sign for their humor, history, Christian faith, subtle social commentary, and nuggets to ponder.” I learned quickly that many are just as obsessed with the changing messages as I am, and there are others just as interested to know more about the face behind the sign. Senajda Celaj captured this feeling when she said, “I always wondered who the witty individual was posting them for our community’s enjoyment.”
So, who exactly does create these messages and maintain the sign? The Briarcliff Community Church website states, various people have overseen the signs over the years, and each has done it in their own unique way, since 2011, Joan Austin is the sign lady.
I had the pleasure of spending an hour with “the sign lady” both interviewing, as well as heading to the church basement to see where the letters are kept, how she creates the weekly signs, and then finally watching her change the sign. The ubiquitous town curiosity is now solved.
Joan Austin has lived in Briarcliff since 1975 and while there was a time she was frequently recognized anywhere in town, as a school board member for 18 years, and wife of the village Mayor, she is now known by a smaller group and remains more mysterious. Joan is a historian with two degrees in history and an avid lifelong reader. She uses those passions as her springboard to inspire the weekly messages saying they come from, “something I think of, or see, something inspirational. I like to put up ones that are kind of funny, ones that have a spiritual aspect, but not specifically Christian, and I comment very carefully on current events, I don’t want this to be political.”
Joan changes the sign every Monday morning around 11:30 a.m. and maps out her plan weeks in advance. When I asked her if it was time consuming, she said, “from the time I leave home to the time I get back, it’s maybe 45 minutes.” In terms of planning what she is going to use, Joan explained her process of finding and saving ideas just about anywhere explaining: “When I come across something, I write it on a slip of paper, and then I put it on the computer. I have 68 pages of possible quotes, some of which will never be used!”
Joan also explained the times, “I will break that schedule to make sure the sign reflects a current event. For instance, in September, when Queen Elizabeth died.” Additionally, Joan will break her Monday schedule when tragedy occurs. Recently, she made sure to express the church and community were there with the people of Buffalo, and that we would stand by Ukraine. These sentiments are very powerful and have even spread around the world. Joan explained a very moving story sharing, “When the attack on the Muslim Community in New Zealand occurred, I posted a sign condemning it, and I later heard that a Muslim person in the area took a picture of it and sent it to the Middle East where it was seen by many.”
Joan remembers the message the historian in her posted after the attacks in Paris in the fall of 2015. She quoted Thomas Jefferson’s statement that “All men have two countries, their own and France.” She vividly remembers a community member stopping her and telling her “That it brought them to tears as they drove by.”
It seems that 2015 was quite a viral year for the roadside sign when during the 2015 World Series, the sign read, “God doesn’t take sides. The sign lady does. Let’s go Mets” was passed around from coast to coast and had an astounding 41,023 views on Facebook! Numerous Briarcliff residents shared memories of this specific message, including Bob Kilman who remembered, “it made me smile every time I passed.”
Finally, I asked Joan if she knows she is a local mysterious celebrity, she replied, “No, I didn’t. I wasn’t aware that the sign was so widely noticed or discussed. It’s gratifying to hear that the sign fosters community, something I so cherish about Briarcliff.” Additionally, community residents shared that the changing message is a source of personal reflection, or even better, driving discussions. Rebecca Bell, mother of Briarcliff High School sophomore, Abigail Bell shared how messages such as’ “Tweet others how you want to be tweeted” and “Before you judge someone make sure that your perfect” are examples of “thought-provoking conversation starters with my teenage daughter, as we are driving past.” A few residents remember telling their teenagers to look up from their phones to read and think about the message, “Discover a whole new world. Put down your phone.”
The overwhelming feelings of our town solidified how many people would appreciate knowing more, because as resident Erica Ben-Zvi so perfectly stated, “the signs make me feel proud to live in Briarcliff, they give such a strong sense of community and sometimes they’re so philosophical and they leave me on Pleasantville Road thinking profoundly.” Finally, Robin Rabinowe had the best idea saying, “We should get national coverage for this!” I couldn’t agree more, and now I am on to my next step in making sure Joan Austin’s story makes her more than just our community’s no longer a secret “local celebrity.”