A model model railroad club

Opinion: Columns

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By Frank Vozak

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What does it mean to have a model railroad club in the village of Oak Park? For the past 55 years, the Oak Park Society of Model Engineers, often known as the Oak Park Model Railroad Club or just the Model Railroad, has been the living, breathing example of model railroading in Oak Park. 

From 1964 to 1978, the club was affiliated with the Recreation Department and had a layout in the basement of the Barrie Park Recreation Center. When that space was needed for other purposes, Oak Park residents petitioned village hall which granted a room in the basement of the Dole Center. 

The members patched and painted walls, painted the floor, and arranged for modern lighting to have the room they have today (with the help of new lighting and HVAC during the Dole renovation). In this room, the Model Railroad Club built one totally completed model railroad and is in the process of building the second — a state-of-the-art, 500-foot, mainline, digital, command control layout. It will recreate a trip on the Chicago Great Western R.R. through Oak Park to Des Moines, Iowa. 

For the last 40 years, the village of Oak Park has been the club's landlord and now that Dole is being taken over by the park district, the club is getting a new landlord though it is kind of going full-circle since the club's original sponsor was the Oak Park Recreation Department. The train club pays rent, by the way, albeit modest.

This HO scale railroad club has members from the age of 12 to the age of 92 (the writer of this story is 67 and new to the village, living here only 35 years!). Many members live in Oak Park; several others were born, raised, educated, and then priced-out of Oak Park. Others retired out of Oak Park and, yes, others came to the club from other locales.

The big complicated DCC layout and a smaller DC layout are the kind that any visitor, regardless of age, can run. But, in fact, when young visitors have shown the aptitude to run trains, with the assistance of a member, they have been allowed to do so on the main large, three-level, 550-foot mainline DCC layout (our youngest visiting engineer was 6 years old). 

The model Railroad Club is very excited about senior citizen activities coming to Dole since we would like to be part of their schedule. We have a regularly scheduled Friday Afternoon Retirees Model Railroad Running session (age-range is 62-89) and we are eager to invite them to join us running trains or watching whenever. We offer a special-rate membership too.

If you don't own a train, we have trains you can use. If you want to purchase your own, we can offer all kinds of advice too. 

You'll find us in the basement at the Dole Learning Center, 255 Augusta in Oak Park. The club is open for viewing on Mondays and Wednesdays from 7:15 to 9 p.m. and Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m. except on holidays. Open houses are coming up on Saturday, May 4 and on Saturday, Nov. 2 with door prizes and refreshments. And we are always at Day in Our Village.

The train club is self-supporting from membership dues and from donations. We don't receive any funds from the village of Oak Park; in fact, we pay rent. When you visit us, you'll see the large investment in dollars, time, and creativity that has gone into this. We're lucky in that we've had machinists, carpenters, electricians, engineers, artists and professional handymen as members and their offer of skilled work.

The club is very proud of its built-from-scratch and club-restored model of the Chicago Grand Central Station and its support buildings, warehouse, locals, bridges, etc.

The Oak Park Society of Model Engineers (OPSME) is always reaching out for new members of any skill level and/or interest in what we are doing together. We are also a resource center — come see our 200+ volume reference library and array of many train books. 

The OPSME has a very active community engagement program designed to ensure that others in the community will be able to share our love of trains:

1) We provide assistance to Boy and Girl Scout troops with model train topics they need to complete to earn the "Railroading Merit" badge.

2) We provide visits to our layout for local schools and people with disabilities.

3) We provide club membership for members with special needs with an ADA-compliant layout room.

4) We are open for visitors over 150 nights per year.

5) We maintain the model train layout at Shriner's Children's Hospital.

6) We provide the model railroad display for Brookfield's Christmas Train Day exhibit.

7) Also the train display at the park district's Penny Carnival at Day in Our Village.

8) We provide the train & uniform crew for the Christmas Train for breakfast/lunch/tea with Santa.

9) We refurbished one of the rail cars at Rehm Park's "Ride on Railroad" and returned it to full and safe operability.

10) We are the railroad toy consultant for the Economy Shop.

11) We assist local businesses with train-oriented holiday displays at no cost. Sear's Pharmacy is one of them.

12) We serve as model railroad consultants to the community. This may include helping with the sad process of clearing a model railroader's estate. And we do this for no remuneration.

The OPSME has been a positive force in the Oak Park community for 55 years. As we look around, we see former junior members who have gone forward to become well known railroad book authors and figures in the model railroad industry, who took their interest nurtured in our layout room to become Amtrak or freight engineers or bus drivers. Lifetime friendships are formed, even marriages arranged. Mentoring is provided to create a whole new tomorrow for a new generation. While model railroading is the vehicle, forming strong bonds of equality, fraternity and a common positive vision for the future, is the real product of this club.

Please join us on Saturday, May 5, 12:01-5 p.m. for our 55th Anniversary Open House.

Frank Vozak, an Oak Park resident, is president of the Oak Park Society of Model Engineers.

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