Time to create


Richard Walker shows off his elaborate Christmas model train display, one of three impressive displays he has set up at his home in Gainesville.

Erica Brough/Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 at 10:52 p.m.

Like a lumbering locomotive, Rich Walker's effort to arrange his model railroads got a slow start.

But now it's steaming full speed ahead.

Walker's home in the Emerald Woods subdivision off NW 39th Avenue holds three railroad displays, each with a holiday theme.

One is in the front room, another is off the kitchen, and the grandest one of all has swallowed the garage.

This latter display is a three-tiered village.

Each tier is a thick bed of plastic foam that holds countless sunglass-wearing Santas, peppermint sticks, snowmen, houses, shops and Christmas trees.

Model trains chug along, snaking through the town like a meandering stream.

Walker, 64, enjoyed model trains as a kid and had talked for years with friends Ed Sakal and Morris Thompson about renewing the pastime.

Walker accumulated the materials, but didn't get going until 2006, when his first train set began curling around the Christmas tree near the kitchen. The next year he added a second, larger display, whose buildings play off Charles Dickens stories like "A Christmas Carol" and "Oliver Twist."

Through it all, his friends' failing health made an impression. Thompson died in early 2008; Sakal died Friday after a long illness.

"If you have a hobby or something you want to do ... you'd better do it ... life is short," Walker said.

As this Christmas approached, the conductor pushed his engine to full capacity and invaded the garage.

"From September on, I didn't go to the gym," said Walker, a spry, fit man with a gray beard. He paid two college students to assist with the intricate construction.

"I used to help him with the one under the tree," wife Maryann said. "But he's surpassed my helping."

Like most works of art, the garage display is beautiful as a whole but also holds hidden charms that lay latent, just waiting to reward the careful observer.

There is a two-story brick home that wears a Christmas wreath and a dust of faux snow on its pitched roof. A squint inside the living room window reveals a tiny black dog - a Christmas present - licking the rosy cheek of its new owner.

Walker works at the Veterans Administration hospital, where he is chief of performance improvement. His wife is a nurse practitioner at Shands Vista. Their co-workers, friends and neighbors have brought themselves and their children to witness this enchanted world.

During Christmas 2009, Walker would like to somehow use his displays to benefit charities, perhaps with a food drive.

"It would give it a little more purpose," he said.

Inspiration is coming on another front: The Walkers' daughter, Kassia Zinn, is pregnant with their first grandchild. The baby is due in June and will be 6 months old by next Christmas.

At grandpa's house, this child will find that Dickens lives anew, albeit in miniature; that tinny, recorded sounds of diesel engines can squeak beneath the Christmas tree; and that a glistening Elvis Presley is resident at the North Pole.

Should he or she wish to find grandpa, the garage would be a good place to look. Rich Walker knows that time is fleeting. He's ready to help a new generation enjoy, and create, these whimsical worlds.

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