Support from the community and dedicated recruiting efforts saved the Oak Park Society of Model Engineers (OPSME) from eviction by boosting its Oak Park membership to meet the number stipulated in its leasing agreement with the Park District of Oak Park.
“We’re lucky,” said OPSME President Frank Vozak. “The people of Oak Park have been incredibly kind to us since 1964 and we try to be incredibly kind back.”
Founded in 1964, OPSME has been operating out of the basement of the Dole Center, 255 Augusta St., since 1977. However, last year, the society was at risk of losing that space.
“[Park District of Oak Park Executive Director] Jan Arnold approached us and said, ‘My kid loves trains, but really, it looks like you have about 20 men in a village room that could be used potentially for something else,'” Vozak said.
According to Vozak, the room out of which the model railway society operates is about 30 feet by 40 feet. Although the club pays rent to use it, space is a hot commodity.
“She said, ‘I need to be able to justify to the park district board that you guys are an asset,'” Vozak recounted.
To keep the space, the park district required the club to have 36 members who lived in Oak Park by Dec. 31. 2020.
Vozak said the club began “wildly recruiting.” Vozak even wrote letters published in Wednesday Journal.
Historically, the society has offered an array of membership types at various prices to best suit the interests, financial position and level of commitment different people have and keeps its dues very reasonable.
“We want to make sure anyone can take part,” he said. “We don’t want to turn away people because they can’t afford it.”
Due to the recruitment efforts and flexible membership, the society now has 59 members who live in Oak Park, surpassing the minimum required by the park district.
“That is a great accomplishment and shows how partnership and marketing can build awareness and access,” Arnold said.
A new leasing agreement will be put together at the end of this year, but Arnold hopes that OPSME will maintain its number of Oak Park members.
“We’ve always had tremendous community support. We’re fortunate people like trains and like us,” Vozak said.
The club allows people outside of the village to join and has a total membership of 80.
“We’re an Oak Park resource, but we’re also a regional resource,” Vozak explained.
Unlike other clubs, OPSME doesn’t turn people away based on experience level or vote on new members.
“We really want to make sure no one gets left out,” Vozak said.
OPSME operates on the belief that anyone who wants to enjoy the art of model railroading can participate.
“All you have to do is like trains,” said Vozak.
The membership age starts at 11 years old, but the society has a small layout for younger kids.
If a child is doing well on the kids’ layout, he or she can run trains on the main layout, which depicts Chicago all the way to Des Moines, Iowa.
“We have a lot of kids between the ages of seven and 10 who are running on our main layout,” Vozak said. “We’re probably the only club in the country that does that.”
The club seeks to promote and nurture model railroading interest in younger people and prioritizes community.
The Oak Park tableaus in the club’s railway even features the Wednesday Journal newsroom, Petersen’s Ice Cream and other local businesses.
“We’re also a club that has a number of special needs members. We have one member who is walker-bound, so we have an elevator for him,” he said. “We have three members who are on the autism spectrum. We’ve always had members with disabilities, which is not real common in model railway clubs.”
OPSME has received support from a range of people — from train enthusiasts to people who value community.
“I don’t think a club like ours could exist in any other community,” Vozak said. “We really do embody Oak Park’s values.”