JESUS SAVES: William Henry Stanford (dark shirt) and his brother Jerry Stanford, install a new sign atop Big Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1979. More than 100 years earlier, their uncle helped build the church.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

William Stanford, 73: Builder refurbished iconic ‘Jesus Saves’ sign

William Henry Stanford was able to pack a lot into his 73 years.

He was in the United States U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War.

He was one of Decatur’s first black police officers.

He was a private investigator for a while.

But it was his work as the owner of a construction company that he might be most proud of.

In 1979, he and a brother were hired to completely refurbish one of Atlanta’s most recognizable and enduring landmarks – the JESUS SAVES sign that sits atop the steeple of Big Bethel A.M.E. Church as a comforting symbol of hope.

“When I was younger, I would say my daddy put that sign up,” said Stanford’s youngest son, Jerrol Stanford. “Even today, it gives me comfort to drive past it.” 

William Henry Stanford died of kidney failure Dec. 31, 2018, in Atlanta. He was 73.

His funeral will be Friday at 1 p.m. at the Murray Brothers Funeral Home, 1199 Utoy Springs Road in Atlanta. He will be buried at Westview Cemetery, 1680 Westview Dr. in Atlanta.

Known as “Big Mike,” William Henry Stanford served in Vietnam, was a police officer and a private detective before starting his own construction company with his brother in 1973.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Stanford was born Sept. 21, 1945, to Lucile and Elmer Elmore Stanford in Atlanta.

“Big Mike,” as he was called in school, along with his brothers grew up in the Old Fourth Ward. At the old David T. Howard High School, he was active as a member of the student government association, president’s cabinet and Squires Club.

After graduating in 1963, he joined the United States Navy as an underwater demolition technician. He served for four years, receiving an honorable discharge and a National Defense Service medal.

On May 4, 1968, he married Dorothy McKisic and had three sons, William II, Michael and Jerrol.

“He taught us all hard work,” Jerrol Stanford said. “We were around him a lot and he made me who I am today.”

Stanford used his military training to work briefly as a prison guard in Buford, before becoming a police officer for the city of Decatur from 1969 until 1973.

With his brother, Jerry, who also had a law-enforcement background, the two started an upstart private detective business. When that got too dicey, they opened their own construction company, Stanford, Stanford & Stanford Construction, along with a third brother.

They had been doing a lot of residential and commercial general contracting when officials at Big Bethel called them to replace the JESUS SAVES sign at the oldest black church in Atlanta, whose roots date back to 1847.

“And it meant a lot to us, because we had an uncle who put the original stones in the church in 1865,” Jerry Stanford said.

A version of the iconic sign had been a mainstay at Big Bethel since 1922, when the church was refurbished after a fire. Jerry Stanford said by the time they got to it in 1979, the sign was rotting and birds had broken most of the warm neon bulbs.

The brothers got a cousin to make the letters, and a sign company to make the neon bulbs. They then hoisted themselves up the 200-foot tall steeple with rope to install it.

The blue-neon “Jesus Saves” sign on the steeple can be seen for miles.

“We had a reputation for doing difficult projects, so they gave us the challenge of restoring it,” Jerry Stanford said. “It meant a lot to us. He was somebody that I could always depend on. We were like twins.”

ATLANTA, GA — The ‘Jesus Saves’ sign on the steeple of Big Bethel AME Church on Auburn Avenue has been unlit for a decade. The church is throwing a celebration for the relighting of the sign. (DWIGHT ROSS, JR./AJC staff)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Aside from his wife, three sons and younger brother, Stanford is survived by six grandchildren; and another brother, Richard Stanford.

He was a member of Fellowship of Faith Church International in East Point.

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