As the mayor of East St. Louis, Illinois, Carl Officer governs a population of approximately 31,542. As a minister and funeral director, he’s offered blessings and read last rites for some of those same people. When he finds free time, he takes on another commanding role-master conductor of his model railroad collection.
Officer’s electronic construction, on which he’s spent over $100,000 expanding, takes up the entire circumference of his basement. He actually crafts the tracks himself, constructing scenes that offer agricultural, urban, and military settings.
Interest in the hobby began around age 8, when his father bought him a train set. Even his dad played with the set once or twice: “Myself and singer Phil Perry (another East St. Louis native) would get to watch our elders enjoy what they couldn’t have as a child.”
By the time Officer hit his teens, his studies at a military high school became his focus. As an adult, his concentration became politics. His interest in trains was rekindled, however, by his father’s death in 1989. “It was therapy for me,” Officer recalls. “I went to the lumberyard one night and just began building. It reconnected such a happy part of my life with my father.”
Today, the train tracks in the basement are where he returns in the face of challenges. “It’s a milk-and-cookies moment. I don’t have to worry about who’s sick, who’s dying, who wants anything. I can just be a kid again.”
The National Model Railroad Association in Chattanooga, Tennessee, provides information and advice for model train enthusiasts. Ben Pearlman, their director of membership services, offers the following tips:
ORDER THE WALTHER’S GUIDE. Walther’s (www.walthers.com) is the largest wholesale distributor of model railroads in the country.
CHOOSE AN APPROPRIATE SET. Types range from those designed to fit in small quarters to outdoor versions. Starter sets run from less than one hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Look at best value, which isn’t always based on the lowest price. For example, according to Pearlman, nickel silver is the best for tracks, versus stainless steel or brass.
CONSIDER JOINING THE NATIONAL MODEL RAILROAD ASSOCIATION. Annual dues are $45. Membership provides a number of services from exclusive product offers to how-to clinics and model contests. Visit them at www.nmra.org.