Let’s hear it for the storeroom.
Plenty of the usual locations rightfully get credit for facilitating magical moments where someone connects with something from the past: the greedy attic, that monopolizing purveyor of dusty who’s-its and what’s-its from eras past. The basement, that dark cave of old boxes jutting up from the ground like cardboard stalagmites. The antique store, that central hub of intersecting interests and bygone material glory, full of collectibles from sellers to buyers.
The credit for this moment, instead, goes to the storeroom – in particular the farmhouse storeroom on the Southards' land in central Iowa, just south of Marshalltown. It was there, about 25 years ago, that Opus College of Business associate professor Peter Southard’s mom found a Lionel train set from the 1950s that had belonged to Peter's older brother, Tom. She didn’t want to throw it away and Tom didn’t want it, so she offered it to Peter.
He thought about growing up on that same farm and enjoying working with his hands by helping his dad with equipment, taking things apart and putting them together again. So, he took the train set home, cleaned it up, took it apart and put it together again. It worked.
“And I was completely hooked,” Southard said.
The two-and-a-half decades since have seen a love affair with model trains and thousands of pieces passing through the hands of Southard. He specializes in the metallic surgery of taking trains from the mid-20th century and getting them back in prime condition. Southard said that’s just one of many specialties members of the local, national and global communities of model train aficionados can develop; they can do everything from reveling in perfecting every detail of engines and cars, to designing elaborate layouts for trains to run through, to plain enjoying seeing model trains run.
“There are all sorts of skills and interests that can be encompassed in model railroad,” Southard said.
That’s partially why a company such as Lionel – which has been making model trains since 1900 and is considered the U.S. industry’s gold standard, Southard said – continues to find plenty of customers to this day. Southard said he often uses Lionel as an example in his business classes because it has been around for and experienced so many of the things he teaches about. Most of the time, though, Southard’s hobby is a break from work and a stress reliever, whether it’s at home tending to his individual pieces or spending time with fellow maintainers of the Twin City Model Railroad Museum.
When I visited Southard's office it didn’t take long to understand his passion. In the winter it takes even less time: He sets up a track in his office around a Christmas tree, an instant clue to any passersby. It’s a safe bet he’s more than happy, whatever the season, to talk trains with you. I enjoyed the opportunity to do just that, and made a point to ask him some non-train-related questions too. (Let’s be real, though: Some of those found their way back to trains.)
You’ve got these thousands of sets, but what’s your favorite one?
On my family room wall is a display case with my original set, my brother’s original set … and his best friend [Jim] found his old train set and asked if I would be interested in having it. So I have Jim’s old set in there, too, so those are my favorites.
At what age do you think you became an adult?
My wife would say I haven’t attained that yet. I hope there is some part of me that hasn’t grown up and never will. I think that’s partly true of every adult. Part of you needs to remain child-like forever. There’s so much good in the child-like parts of you: the joy, the curiosity, the wonder, the imagination, all those things that oftentimes we lose as adults. Part of me never has and never will grow up.
If you could time travel forward or backward, which way would you go?
I don’t know. I like where I’m at; I like the present. The past has a lot of interesting things but it is past and we know about it. The future, I’m going into it as fast as I want to go.
If you could have a meal with anyone, who would you have at the table with you?
I wouldn’t mind having lunch with Joshua Cowen. Joshua’s middle name was Lionel, and he was the founder of the Lionel Corporation. He was a fascinating individual. He had a lot of foresight, a lot of imagination. He had a very charismatic personality. I wouldn’t mind having lunch with him and how he envisioned the toy train industry and his take on business. He had a very unique approach to doing business.
What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
The two [pictures] on the shelf up there. My kids.
What’s your greatest accomplishment?
Same thing. I’m very proud of my children and what they’ve accomplished. My daughter just got married this last September and the bride’s father is expected to stand up at the reception and say something, and one of the things I said was, “As a parent, as you’re watching your children grow, you always have that desire that they will become something more than you were. As I stand here today I’m very proud to say that’s occurred.”