- Written by Jackie Chicalese Jackie Chicalese
History is an integral facet of culture and identity, and two area men are promoting the preservation and education of Pennsylvania history through their volunteer work at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
Like many, Douglas G. O’Brien and James “Stu” Jack Jr. developed an interest in railroads as children. Despite both men pursuing unrelated professions — as a broadcaster and air separation manager, respectively— their interest in trains did not wane as they matured.
After 30 years of broadcasting in New York City, O’Brien and his wife retired from city life in 2014, returning to his wife’s hometown in Lancaster County.
O’Brien was already familiar with the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg. In the years prior to their retirement, he and his wife toured the museum often, making four or five visits per year.
“I think I’ve known since the late 1980s that I wanted some association with the museum,” O’Brien said.
Similarly, Jack and his wife, both natives of New York state, transferred to southeast Pennsylvania in 1976, settling in Chester County.
Once Jack retired, he began researching different museums and service organizations with which he could become involved. After reflecting on his train commutes into New York City as a worker, his Lionel trains as a child, and his work building a model railroad for his sons in his basement, Jack had an answer.
“The Railroad Museum was a natural choice since I have had a lifelong fascination with trains,” Jack said.
As an organization, the RRMPA aims to preserve and exhibit railroad history, as well as educate the public on the significance of railroads in the nation’s history.
O’Brien has been volunteering at the RRMPA for four years, and in 2016 was named volunteer of the year. Jack has been volunteering for roughly three and a half years, and in 2017, received the same honor.
O’Brien volunteers three to four hours a day, four or five days a week, at the museum.
“I feel I just naturally flowed from career to those volunteer activities,” O’Brien said. “It’s rather like they are extensions of what I’ve been doing, except more fun.”
Regarding O’Brien’s 2016 volunteer of the year acknowledgement, Patrick Morrison, museum director, noted that O’Brien “has always demonstrated a friendly and helpful attitude toward visitors and his peers, as well as a real dedication to the museum’s collection and its mission.”
“I believe everyone has a duty to contribute some time in fields where they can bring their talents and skills to bear,” O’Brien said.
For O’Brien, this encompasses his role as caretaker of a large HO-gauge model railroad layout.
“Until I arrived, there was apparently no one to look after it,” O’Brien said.
The railroad runs five trains per day, six and a half days a week, 52 weeks a year, amounting to about 2,000 hours annually — roughly the amount of hours most model railroaders run in a lifetime.
Due to the complexity of the mechanical parts, as well as physical demand, the trains at the museum require regular maintenance.
“We’re always hopping,” O’Brien said. “Tracks and wheels need to be kept clean for maximum electrical contact, gears need to be lubricated, solder joints break and need to be repaired — and we like to improve and enhance the layout with new and better scenery, more working track, and so on.”
Along with railroad maintenance, O’Brien is also qualified to lead educational tours of the museum, which displays over 100 locomotives and cars from the mid-19th and 20th centuries.
O’Brien’s volunteerism does not end there, however. He volunteers twice a week at Lancasterhistory.org, where he leads tours through Wheatland, President Buchanan’s home, and brings history to life, appearing in historical reenactments.
While O’Brien oversees the mechanics of the RRMPA, Jack manages museum information.
He spends roughly half of his volunteer time in the museum library. There, he researches old railroad photos that have been given to the museum.
“Many of the photos have to be sorted and identified by railroad, equipment type, location, dates, etc., prior to being stored digitally and made available online,” Jack said.
Morrison said Jack “is consistent, disciplined, and extremely hardworking” with “an uncanny ability to read people, provide a high level of attentiveness to their individual questions and interests, and really make a connection with them.”
In addition to his research for the museum, Jack spends time in the cab of several locomotives, educating visitors on the technical workings of the trains, how the trains were crewed, and the advancement in equipment technology.
“I do ‘pretend trips’ with [visitors], showing them how to operate the locomotive, how to make it go forward and back, how to stop it, how to blow the whistle, etc.,” Jack said.
For both men, the museum provides an opportunity for them to pursue responsibilities they find interesting and engaging.
“I’m doing precisely what I want to do, rather than what someone else wants me to,” O’Brien said. “I genuinely enjoy the tasks I’ve undertaken.”
Not only are both volunteers able to assume duties of their own volitions, but they are also able to pass their passions on to visitors.
“When it is all said and done, I get to share what I have learned about railroads with all of our guests,” Jack said.
Along with the personal benefits they enjoy while volunteering, all the positive public interactions they experience motivate O’Brien and Jack to continue their museum work.
One memorable encounter occurred while O’Brien was sitting down to work on layout.
“Out of nowhere, a 3-year-old boy climbed in my lap and asked what I was doing,” O’Brien said. “He very politely sat there while I worked, with grandparents and other visitors snapping away [on their cameras].”
Jack recalled a “pretend trip” that mesmerized a young lady. A man observing told Jack he had made the woman’s day with his demonstration.
“Of course, his remark made my day, too!” Jack said.
The volunteers’ main goal is to provide a pleasant, educational experience for all visitors, and to encourage them to return.
“When I see smiles leaving RRMPA, I know I’ve helped out,” O’Brien said.
“It is a labor of love,” Jack added. “And I have 50 new grandchildren every day that I am out in our display hall. What can be better than that?”
For more information on the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, call (717) 687-8628 or visit https://rrmuseumpa.org.