Monday, March 16, 2015

Say “hi” to the new guy

What’s the title about? I’ll come to that in a moment. First, some background. From time to time in the hobby of model railroading, various people feel obliged to “view with alarm” what they believe to be a steadily aging contingent of hobbyists. This is hardly new, and back in the 1940s, when Model Railroader magazine polled its readers every year,  an editorial once pointed out that “the average age of hobbyists gets a year older every year.” In those days, each MR survey provided an annual magazine article, a fascinating comparison to today.
     The obvious conclusion from “a year older every year” for the entire hobby is that the hobby is doomed, and soon. Obviously that didn’t turn out to be true in the 1940s or 50s, because the hobby is still here, and I doubt it is true today, though there are still folks who view the model railroading age distribution with alarm.
     Why is that view wrong? Well, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think a few points can be made. First, it is obvious from the continuing health of model railroading, not just existence but health, that it is far from a dying hobby. That makes it equally obvious that recruitment continues to happen.
     But my second point is a crucial point. For years, senior hobby people have pushed to publicize the hobby to kids. But as nearly every current model railroader knows, whether or not you liked models as a kid, you became far more serious a lot later. Clubs and other organizations can testify to this: men (and some women) in their later thirties and much of their forties find their child-rearing duties ending, and look for activities that they would enjoy with their new-found leisure time.
     That’s where recruitment needs to be focused. I have no objection to publicizing model railroading to children (Thomas the Tank Engine already does a bang-up job), I think it’s worthwhile, and as a boy I built a variety of models, gradually turning to just railroad models (more on that in a moment). But high school, college and graduate school intervened, followed by starting a career and helping to raise two sons, and model railroading faded entirely out of my consciousness until my late thirties. As it happened, I first got back into the hobby to build a small layout for my boys, but before long, that led to my getting active again with my own models.
     I think that the circa-40 age is a critical age, and if I were organizing recruiting to model railroading, I would concentrate there. Many kinds of recruiting can be envisioned, but I just want to mention one (and it’s the reason for the title of this post). As my title for this blog says, whenever you are at any kind of modeling event, say “hi” to the new guy. People come by train events for all kinds of reasons, but some are intrigued with a possible modeling hobby. Walk up to the new guy (or gal) and strike up a conversation. “Are you a modeler? What do you model?” and so on. A welcoming face on the hobby can make all the difference.
     I learned some of this when I lived in Pittsburgh and belonged to the Pittsburgh Club (then located on the city’s North Side). Like any group, most people on meeting nights gravitated to their friends, and would chat together in groups before the business meeting or the train running. But one member, Andy Lorince, would unfailingly spot the new guy and go over and chat with him. It wasn’t that the rest of us didn’t notice an unfamiliar face, we just didn’t make that little extra effort to say “hi.” Naturally not all the folks Andy spoke to would eventually become club members or even modelers, but quite a few did.
     I know that some of my age cohorts look around at conventions and notice that practically everyone has gray hair. “Oh no,” they cry, “we’re all getting a year older every year.” But it’s older, especially retired, people who have the leisure time and, often, funds to be able to attend conventions; they really are not anything like a sample of the whole hobby; and don’t forget, each age group tends to socialize with its peers, not with “those kid modelers over there.” Some day, of course, those “kid modelers” will be us.
     But let me go back for a moment to what can be done with younger people. I had my own experience with this kind of thing. I grew up on the west side of Glendale, California, and after modeling entirely on my own for awhile (except for a few folks I had chatted with at the local hobby shop, the Brass Hat on Pacific Avenue), I saw a newspaper notice about a new-member open house at a club. (Incidentally, I mentioned this hobby shop in a prior post, about a landmark event in my modeling career; you can read it at this link: .) I went to that open house, and was able to join the club. But there was a little more to the story than that. 
     The club was the Glendale Model Railroad Club. Founded in 1949, it was still young when I joined in about 1954. Actually, you had to be an adult to join, but the club had a Junior Member program, allowing teens under 18 to join but restricting them to a separate meeting night (I strongly suspect some of the adult membership was not crazy about the teen program, and didn’t want it in their face at normal meeting nights).
     This teen program had some interesting features. We were allowed, in fact encouraged, to bring our own models on the Junior meeting night, and run trains. But before you could do that, you were expected to work for an hour on some kind of layout project, usually maintenance, and a senior member would be training you in whatever project it was. I learned to solder feeders, adjust switch machines, repair ground throws, fix sticky couplers and truck swing, and lots of other routine tasks that I had not ever done before. In some ways, that was the foundation of my model railroading skills, and I appreciate it to this day.
     Partly because of my own pivotal experience in that program for teens, I often ask members of other clubs around the country if they have a Teen Member program of any kind. Most people look at me like I’m crazy, and say something like “heck no.” And when I hold forth about how much I gained from it, I can tell they are not moved to think in such a direction. I’d say that’s too bad.
     The Glendale club still exists (see: ), though with a new layout since my day, and they still have Junior Members. I often mention the Glendale Club in acknowledging my own formative years in the hobby. It’s an example of how young prospective modelers can be encouraged and trained. But whatever the age of the person you’re encouraging, here’s the point. A little effort to notice and accept someone who is just checking out a meeting or a show can pay big dividends to the hobby. We should all try it more often.
Tony Thompson


  1. Tony,

    I totally agree.

    During my roughly 10 year period with Northern Virginia Model Railroaders (www. in Vienna, VA we always had a junior membership category that attracted a strong stream of talent. One became President at about 34 years of age, holding that role for four years. Another was Operations Manager before going to undergraduate school. We tried to get him to delay his schooling but wisely he and his mother did not think much of that. Two guys were driven to the club by their mother. Ever time I talked one of these two, their eye level was 3 inches higher.

    Secondly The Flyer the quarterly mostly on-line publication for the Potomac Division of the NMRA has a feature titled "We'd like you to meet" that is focused on under 40 year old railroad modelers who hold interesting jobs or professions and are notable modelers. I've been thrilled to meet them and often provide them with their first 'attaboy." At first I thought finding folks like this would be difficult but once I found two or three, others surfaced. There has been push back but talent always wins.

    So from here a resounding yes

    Roger Sekera

  2. Hi Tony,
    Very well said, Sir! I absolutely believe this is the kind of thing that will help clubs to survive and prosper.
    May I use your words to try and help my club based in Manchester, UK as our average age is around 75 or more!?!
    Many thanks in anticipation,
    John Edge.

  3. Thank you, Roger and John, for your comments. Obviously I too feel like there is a lot clubs can do, and it's for their own health as well as good for the hobby.
    Tony Thompson

  4. As one of the under 40 crowd (for a couple more months) I have to chime in on a couple points. One - I really wish more clubs had a better program for integrating new folks than "You look new - stand up and tell us your name (what you model, etc.)". Your approach sounds so much nicer, showing a genuine interest at a conversational level, vs. the obligatory nod to newbies. Perhaps those clubs who only do the minimal introductions really don't want to know anything about you, or integrate you into their old boys' club, because it might mean they'd have to do things like you suggest - help you learn about the hobby.

    Two - I think you're giving Thomas the Tank Engine too much credit. Perhaps he has spurred an interest in trains in general, just maybe, but I don't think he does as much good as harm. Day Out with Thomas events - that's another story. But the show on TV has become pretty sad, and drifted far away from the neat stories about railroads that were written long ago. Somewhere along the line the engines began to behave without the help of their drivers, and when the human interaction with trains is removed, something important is lost.

    1. Boy Galen! You hit it with this "Perhaps those clubs who only do the minimal introductions really don't want to know anything about you, or integrate you into their old boys' club,"
      I've seen it in a club I used to belong to. I could only attend meetings a few times a year as I worked evenings, but I would see new persons occasionally there and then not see them again. If their interests and skills didn't fit with the "Central Cabal" they would quickly fade away.
      Bob Bochenek

  5. I have not seen recent episodes of the TV program, so can't comment on them. Certainly back in the day they were charming. A couple of different children we know liked the episodes best that were narrated by Ringo Starr (though they had no idea who HE was). And you're right, Thomas on TV, and even Thomas toys, don't directly lead to model building. But I think developing a liking for trains is a core benefit.
    Tony Thompson

  6. I've been tempted to dump RPMing the SP, and model Thomas and Friends. The big question is: Hornby OO or Bachmann HO? Well, for the price of a single Division Point SP steam engine, you can have it all. Then you can run trains. Really run trains, and not worry about the klutz at the club knocking $50 of detail parts off your box car as he rerails it after it jumped the gap between modules the wrong way.

    I've since regained my senses. :-)