Chuck Ealy laughed the easy laugh that is his trademark – even more than the shiny things in his shop.
“I had no education business-wise,” said a man whose education was in education, his major at California University of Pennsylvania.
So when he launched Tri-State Designs in Claysville in 1988, Ealy was more than a tad apprehensive. He had been a longtime industrial arts instructor, familiar with woodworking tools, but not the tools necessary for retail success.
Apparently, without realizing it, he had acquired them along the way.
More than a quarter-century later, Tri-State Designs not only has survived but thrived at 148 Main St. Under the auspices of Ealy and his daughter, Melissa Stagon, the shop specializes in custom trophies, plaques, medals and ribbons for youth and adult athletic teams, bowling leagues, churches, Patriot Guard, police, school groups, social groups – about any entity imaginable.
One table in the modest but immaculately kept building attests to the popularity of dartball. It is adorned by league dartball trophies, lots of them.
Work mostly is done there or nearby. “I do custom wood stuff at my home” two doors down, said Ealy, 65, a lifelong Claysville resident.
A number of clients, of course, are in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Many are in Washington and Greene counties, but some are from farther-flung regional venues such as the Mt. Lebanon High School rifle team and a church in Fawn Township, northeast of Pittsburgh.
“We’ve also shipped plaques to Italy, Guam and Korea,” said Stagon, the shop’s only other staffer, who assumed 99 percent ownership in 2013.
“We’ve sent to most states, including Alaska – but not Hawaii,” said Ealy, who is gratified and, perhaps, a little surprised by the success of this small-town enterprise.
“I was told you can’t make it selling trophies,” he said, laughing again. “I guess I’ve been doing things right despite not knowing anything about business.”
This wasn’t supposed to be his gig. Ealy was a teacher at John Marshall High School in Glen Dale, W.Va., a generation ago when his wife, Charmaine, was losing her nursing position. He started Tri-State as a business she could lead … then she found another job.
Chuck Ealy had taken drafting classes at Cal U., though, and he was experienced in industrial arts, so he had an edge on some competitors.
Tri-State opened in a concrete block building on Beham Ridge Road, Donegal Township, in April 1988. It moved to Main Street in 2001, into a structure built at the end of the Civil War.
Tri-State certainly doesn’t call attention to itself. There is a sign on the door, but it is understated, far from ostentatious. It is impressive inside, with dozens of trophies, ribbons, plaques and state-of-the-art equipment. There are a laser engraver and two computer engravers.
“We do three or four lines of engraving at no charge,” Ealy said.
And if a name is spelled incorrectly, usually courtesy of the client, he will reach for another trophy.
“I think we always put out a good product, and we’ve never been late with anything. We don’t charge a lot, either.
“You name it and we do it, or probably have done it.”
That tardiness part of the equation was tested a few years after Tri-State opened, when the manufacturing process was more time-consuming. Ealy said Barry Gashel, now deceased, approached him hours before the McGuffey Youth Wrestling banquet. Gashel was downcast, having forgotten to order 140 trophies.
“We made 140 in two and a half to three hours,” said Ealy, who also has a son, Chuck Jr. “We got done just in time for them to be handed out.”
He retired as a teacher in 2010, well after yielding the shop’s reins. “Melissa has been running this since 1998.”
Stagon, 37, is a championship marksman who also was a top-flight softball player. She handles orders, shipping and most of the daily operations. But not all operations. Her father remains a devoted linchpin to the business he nurtured.
“I have no idea how many hours I put in, and I don’t get anything out of it to tell you the truth,” Ealy said. “There are things I’d rather be doing, and should be doing, but I come here every day.”
To help take care of business.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday; 10 to 6 Tuesday, Thursday; by appointment Saturday. For more information, visit www.tri-statedesigns.com.