BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Every Tuesday at 10:00 a.m., a group of “ex-Cons” gathers at Georgette’s Grounds and Gifts in Maumee for coffee, breakfast and reminiscing about life working on the railroad.
“We get together because we understand each other,” said Bob Duffy, who was a conductor for Conrail, formerly the Consolidated Rail Corporation and at one time the primary Class I railway in the northeastern United States.
Sitting around the table where they’ve met for over 15 years, Duffy is joined by fellow conductors Daniel Bailey and Don Koch and locomotive engineers Hank Holland and Ken Chesser.
“We all started out when it was Penn Central,” said Holland, explaining that Penn Central went bankrupt and was bought by Conrail in 1976. In 1999, Norfolk-Southern and CSX jointly took over Conrail, but the men still consider themselves ex-Cons.
Duffy recalls he was fairly new on the job when he learned about Penn Central’s bankruptcy – and got worried about whether he’d be laid off.
“An old-timer told me, ‘Don’t worry, they won’t tear the tracks up,’” he said with a laugh.
At one time, Conrail had 150 trains a day crossing the Maumee River in Toledo, and jobs were plentiful in the late 1960s when Chesser, Duffy, Holland, Bailey and Koch launched their careers.
Duffy and Koch both longed for an opportunity to earn a decent paycheck and spend time outside. A Waite High School graduate, Duffy was working as a mechanic at a service station when his uncle convinced him to take a job as a switchman, then a flagman, riding in the caboose – until 1985 when the caboose was replaced by a flashing light.
“I liked traveling. We would go through the Indiana countryside,” Duffy said of his route to Elkhart and back.
Koch, a 1968 Whitmer graduate, was 17 when his dad – who had worked as a conductor for Penn Central – died and left him on his own, so he applied for a job.
“They took me on as a brakeman working in the train yard,” Koch said. “I was a young kid working with guys my grandfather’s age. It was a whole new experience.”
While working in the yard during inclement weather could be challenging, Koch said he loved being outside and on the move.
“It was better than working in a factory,” he said.
Bailey, a Waite High School graduate, saw an ad in The Blade and applied for a job as a brakeman in 1968, at a time when jobs were plentiful. He eventually became a conductor – those who manage the crew and the loading and unloading of freight. Engineers, on the other hand, drive the train, and that requires several years of education, Holland explained.
An Arkansas native, Holland started his railroading experience with the Western Pacific Railroad in California before visiting a cousin in Ohio and deciding he liked the area. He recalls the test he took to get his first job with Penn Central as a fireman.
“One of the questions on the test was, ‘To put in a lightbulb, do you turn it left or right?’ The guy next to me was college-educated and he flunked the test,” Holland laughed.
His testing to become an engineer was even more rigorous: three years to learn the mechanics of a locomotive, the air brakes and knowing all the physical characteristics of the route, including road crossings, towns and speed limits. Even once passing the test, he and fellow engineer Chesser had to wait for seniority and for a spot to open up.
“Kenny and I rose through the ranks and worked in different places,” Holland said.
Those routes included Toledo to Cleveland, where the engineer was away from home almost two days, then back for eight hours – of which at least two were spent traveling, showering and eating. That left just four or five hours to sleep before going back on duty for another 16-hour shift. In the years since, those shift times have shortened to 12 hours.
“I worked all over the place,” said Chesser, a Macomber graduate who was working on his education degree at Toledo University in 1967 when he took a summer job with Penn Central.
“I started figuring out that as a teacher I would make maybe $16,000, but as an engineer I’d make a lot more. I’m enjoying life now because of all the work I did,” Chesser said.
The long hours could take its toll on family, and many railroaders experienced divorce.
“My wife raised the kids,” said Bailey, who was in Cleveland every other day. “I dropped the paycheck off.”
Holland credits his wife, Sharon, for being a mom, dad and household manager.
“She understood that she had a part-time husband,” Holland said. “She would get up early and pack enough meals for three days for me, then she stayed home and raised our daughter.”
Often the men were on call, and that was back before the days of pagers, cell phones or even an extension phone. Going outside to mow the lawn or wash the car might mean missing a call to be back at the railyard for a run.
“If you missed the call, you lost money – two days’ pay if you missed the trip,” Koch said.
The pay, especially for engineers, was a big incentive. Instead of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, retired railroaders paid into and receive excellent benefits and pensions. That’s in part because of the dangers of a job where at least 10 percent of the workers were hurt and most experienced their share of traumatic incidents.
“We all had massive events, and sometimes people died,” Koch said. “We’ve all been in situations when people were in the crossing. We don’t discuss it a whole lot, but it underlies our career.”
Holland counted 19 accidents involving a locomotive and an automobile or person on the tracks, including one in which a friend died. He had PTSD as a result and needed therapy after experiencing horrible nightmares that would awaken his wife.
“We’ve all had a friend or someone who has died working on the railroad,” Chesser agreed.
Bailey recalled a time when an older man drove a pickup truck along the rail line that led to the river crossing. Due to the quick thinking of the conductor alerting the engineer, the pickup driver narrowly avoided getting smashed in between his train and an oncoming engine that would have pushed the truck into the river.
Bailey laughs to recall a time when a delivery driver honked to get his attention.
“He was a bakery deliveryman, and he was behind on his route. He asked if we would let him through,” Bailey said. “I asked if he’d give me a dozen donuts for the effort. When I came back, a guy asked me what was going on. I said, ‘You got a pot of coffee made? I’ve got donuts!’ That made my morning.”
A lot has changed over the years, with technology eliminating jobs like the switchman who used to ride in the caboose. Even now, the engineer gets in and lets the computer operate the throttle and brakes. The engineer’s job is to sound the whistle when approaching crossings.
“Today, they’d like to remotely run without anyone on board,” Chesser said.
For decades, just one woman – who was hired on during World War II and stayed on – worked in the Toledo terminal. As more women joined the ranks, some of the men rebelled, as they had to watch their language and stop telling off-color jokes.
“But having women join was a godsend,” Holland said. “It got better for everyone – immediately.”
The women wouldn’t tolerate the horrible toilet conditions on the train or the sleazebag hotels that were used for overnights out of town, and that improved conditions for everyone, Holland explained.
The camaraderie between the men is obvious, and it’s a carryover from their early days of meeting each other in the railyard. Even though the engineering crew and ground crew usually didn’t get along, the men formed a bond.
“Conductors and engineers hated each other, but we came together as a young group and liked each other,” Holland said. “And here we are today – three conductors and two engineers who got along and worked together, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Bailey credits, in part, their shared Christian faith and their interest in helping others. The three conductors regularly volunteer to do disaster relief repairs through Samaritan’s Purse, and Koch helps out the Red Cross as well as Mountain Mentors, a group that takes inner-city teens on a wilderness survival trip each year. Koch and Duffy also volunteer with Let’s Build Beds, to help children get a bed of their own.
When Sunshine Comm-unity opened Georgette’s over 15 years ago, the men embraced the mission of helping those with developmental disabilities. It’s one reason why they decided to begin meeting at the Maumee coffee shop.
“We all loved the disabled people who worked here. They treated us so nicely,” Holland said. “I had a birthday one year and they gave me a cupcake with a candle in it and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. It brought tears to my eyes.”