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Willmar notebook: Reporter gets respite on rails

Tribune photo by Rand Middleton BNSF engineer Steve Gerdes (WHS '92) and retired conductor Gary "Noodles" Nelson (WHS '65) pause in front of the locomotive Gerdes would soon throttle out of the Willmar yard to Howard Tuesday evening pulling the BNSF Employee Special.

Dear Boss: After frying my high forehead in the blazing sun chasing athletes at the state track meet, you generously ordered me to take a few days off and "think only about trains" since I had a chance to board at the Willmar station. One problem, the sports reporter still had to fill the empty screen under the Willmar Notebook header. There must be an angle here, somewhere? ... faithfully yours, R. Middleton

The familiar orange and black engine pointed west trailing a string of silver coaches. At the far end another freshly-painted locomotive faced toward Kandiyohi.

The morning was bright. A traditionally dressed conductor walked along the platform. He was getting ready for Tuesday's first special of the day. It would sail along the tracks to near Howard Lake, stop, and the tail engine would become the leader returning to the Willmar station.

The train, I understand, was in Nebraska the other day and after departing Willmar would be headed to Dilworth near Fargo and then on to Minot.

My oversized ticket stated "The 2012 BNSF Railway Special is for exclusive use of BNSF employees, their families and other special guests ... to thank our employees, our communities and our customers for their partnership and support."

There was an added energy at the old station with the silver coaches resting on track No. 1.

The conductor was a friendly fellow from Andover, north of the Twin Cities. It turned out Willmar was his home town.

Gary R. Nelson graduated in 1965, one of the most athletically gifted classes in Cardinal history (Lane Erickson/Jeff Hinz shared the Tribune's Hengstler Award).

Was Nelson on those back-to-back 22-1 basketball teams coached by Russ Adamson?

Nope. Well, you must have done something in sports? I inquired, looking for a hook.

"I got my name in the West Central Tribune once," he replied, pride in his voice. "I finished second in the pole vault in a junior-high meet at Litchfield. I wrestled, too, in junior high. Jerry Slattery was the coach; he coached at the new college when it opened. I quit when I lost to [teammate] Bruce Swanson who was two years younger; I kind of saw the writing on the wall."

Gary said his nickname was "Noodles" because he was so lanky. He came from a railroad tradition. Emil, his dad, three uncles, grandfather and a great-grandfather all had worked for the Great Northern.

"The railroad was a well-paying job, if you didn't go to college. Willmar was the best place in the division to learn the skills. I wanted to be a brakeman. I started applying as soon as I got out of school. It took two years before they told me to come in and take the test."

Meantime, he worked on the Iron Range for Coca-Cola. It paid well but the first Monday every month he would call the office in Willmar and ask if there was an opening.

Nelson retired in 2008 after 42 years. By that time, he was one of two senior conductors in the Minneapolis Division. He was also safety chairman.

Gary volunteers on the yearly employee special. His wife of 42 years, the former Linda Ledeboer of Prinsburg, and a grandchild drove out on Monday and road with him on the 2½-hour Special.

While we visited, engineer Steve Gerdes, formerly of Pennock and now of Atwater, came up and introduced himself to Gary. Steve played football for Deryl Ramey here in 1990 and '91, which led to powerlifting as a hobby.

He's been a railroader 17 years, the last 10 as an engineer. He would be our driver to Howard Lake. On the return trip, as the sun began to set, he joined his daughter Madilynn and mother Darlene in one of the coach cars.

Nelson gave Steve one of his business cards while urging him to think about joining the National Association of Retired and Veteran Railway Employees.

"It's only $20 a year," said Nelson, Assistant Director, Area 4 Minnesota. "We've got the best pension plan in the world, but the government wants to tap into it. We paid into all these years; it's our money. We can't let that happen."

Steve agreed it was darn important and he'd certainly give it serious thought.

Precisely, at 6 p.m., the train began to move. We were in the two-story dome-car. My lounge companions were Brent Schlosser, a sound and light technician, and his young sons August and Ian, each big on trains. Brent is married to my newsroom colleague, Gretchen Schlosser. Brent got the tickets from a friend, who is a BNSF employee.

I reckon there were a couple hundred of us railfans on board. We glided down the tracks silently, no clickity-clack anymore. The fields were green, the wetlands blue, and the traffic heading east on U.S. Highway 12 moving at the same pace.

But while motor traffic slows, we whizz through Kandiyohi, Atwater, Grove City, Litchfield, Dassel and Cokato. About two miles short of Howard Lake, the train slows, stops and in a minute or two reverses course.

Julie Herrick, who's with BNSF communications, stops by to answer questions. BNSF services 28 states and two Canadian provinces on 36,000 miles of track, she tells me.

Passenger trains in these parts are few now. The last regular service to Willmar ceased in Oct. 1979, 110 years after the first rail line reached Kandiyohi County. Nelson worked the next to last westbound through his hometown.

We're back at the Willmar station. In the twilight, the big locomotive glows orange as the setting sun. Soon it would be racing west to the next division point in Dilworth.

For some of us, the romance of the rails will always be with us.

A family on track

To a different track -- Jerry and Barb Popp's three children are assistant coaches in track and field. Jerry, head of the Cardinals' track program since 2005, had to defer to his two sons at the state meet last weekend

Both Grant and Mark went home with state championships. Grant, a math teacher, is in his second year at Waseca, which won boys Class A. He is the middle school coach and works with high-school hurdlers.

Mark is in his fourth year at Wayzata, which won the Class AA boys title. The communications teacher coaches the sprints. Kristy is in her third year at Iowa State coaching track. She did her graduate work at Minnesota. All three of the Popp children were standouts in track and cross-country.

Jerry, who grew up in Royalton, and Barb, a Montevideo native, moved back to Minnesota in 2004 from Bowman, N.D., where Jerry had coached track and cross-country for 29 years.

Cardinal honor roll

Rose Jackson, Willmar's lone state qualifier, recorded personal-bests in the Class AA prelims last Friday in both the 100 dash (12.23) and 200 dash (25.3). She placed 7th in both finals. Jackson now has 6 state medals in track with one year to go.

The Cardinals 2012 Track and Field teams registered 34 honor roll performances this spring. The historical listing goes 15 deep for each of the 18 events. Willmar had only 8 seniors this year total so the future remains bright.

Fields reseeded

The Roosevelt playing fields may reopen in September. The popular destination for youth and adult soccer, plus youth football, was shut down in May. Top dressing filled in the divots and low spots before being reseeding and fertilization.

The two end-to-end fields are in constant use once the snow melts. Ideally, the fields would be artificial turf so over-use would not be an issue.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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