Sunday, January 02, 2000

Model trains have much to teach children

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WOODLAWN — A little boy haunted Crawford James throughout the holidays.

        Mr. James saw the youth standing for nearly an hour, transfixed by a model train set erected at Woodlawn's summer Family Day. Mr. James remembers lifting the boy over tape protecting the train from crowds and giving him the controls.

        When the boy's mother came to collect him, Mr. James gave her his card. He told her he'd teach the boy to build a train of his own. He never saw the boy again.

        “I wanted to put together a set for that kid,” Mr. James said. “I'm still hoping he'll call.”

        Mr. James knows the value of a model train hobby. The Woodlawn man has built and collected them since age 10, when his father surprised him with a Santa Fe engine and tracks for Christmas.

        Today, he is looking for a way to share his hobby with children. Creating model trains teaches kids carpentry and electric skills, he says. It nurtures creativity. It fosters a sense of accomplishment. And for kids at risk for poor school performance, the chance to learn a new skill can be an enticement to keep grades up.

        “That kid who's sitting on the fence? Bring him to me for awhile,” Mr. James said. “They have to learn how to do something, but let's try to have fun with it, and while we're doing that, let's try to have a B average in school.”

        Mr. James has dreamed of sharing his hobby for years. Health problems and family concerns made it slow going for the 59-year-old, who went on disability in 1986 from his job as a boiler plant operator for Procter & Gamble.

        Now, he has a portable train set and a trailer in which to haul it. He's talking with Woodlawn Elementary School Principal Audley Smith about setting his train up at the school one day to spark students' interest. He's looking into creating a tax-exempt organization called “Trains for Kids” so people can more easily donate to his cause.

        And he hopes to find a place from which he could permanently run his enterprise.

        Mr. James' train layout takes up his entire basement. At 46 by 26 feet, it can run three trains at once. The engines chug through tiny stations, past little silos and around landscapes with ice skaters and even miniature billboards.

        “It's an art to build these things,” he said. “It makes you think, and then it's the joy of seeing something operate after you've made it work.”

        Eugene Dunn, a Blue Ash collector and friend of Mr. James, has watched his efforts at working with children.

        “I would recommend him to the highest,” Mr. Dunn said. “You're learning about (electricity), you're learning about scenery — there's just so many things in there a child can learn.”

        Dozens of children already have enjoyed Mr. James' trains. He took them to Springdale Elementary School when his daughter was a student there. And he erected a layout at Woodlawn Family Day in August.

        With the aid of teachers and parents, he would like to find children interested in working one-on-one at putting together a layout.

        It doesn't have to be expensive, Mr. James said. An engine can be purchased for about $150, and many parts could be donated.

        For more information about Mr. James and his efforts, call 771-6132.


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