Don Madison remembers when he got a Christmas gift that every kid wanted back in the 1950’s. Many American homes didn’t even have a television back then, so it wasn’t anything that was centered around fiber optic cables or microchips. It was a miniature version of the most powerful, brutish necessity that determined whether towns thrived—or didn’t—and still plays an important role in America’s economy today.

Don Madison remembers when he got a Christmas gift that every kid wanted back in the 1950’s. Many American homes didn’t even have a television back then, so it wasn’t anything that was centered around fiber optic cables or microchips. It was a miniature version of the most powerful, brutish necessity that determined whether towns thrived—or didn’t—and still plays an important role in America’s economy today. Don’s present was a Lionel train set, and being a costly item, it appeared out of reach for many. Don didn’t even get the set he really wanted. “Never did,” he said. But boy, did he and many like him, dream of time when they could afford to get just what they wanted.

Christmas was the time to splurge on children and the Lionel Corporation that made the toy tracks, trains and accessories, saw to it that many American homes had track layouts in living and dining rooms, bedrooms and basements. The sound of a train coursing a track mingled with the merry arrangements of Jingle Bells and Let it Snow!  on family radios. The excitement of the Christmas season and a Lionel train set was etched indelibly into the memories of many baby boomers to this day.

Maybe that’s why local Rotarians Don Madison and Bob Laudon pull together some track, engines and train cars to set up at their 18th Annual Holiday Rotary Celebration. They still get a kick out of the experiences they had at this time of the season and enjoy sharing that with others. The technology of a model train engine and the electronics that run the engine around the track have changed since the old days.
“In the old days, the more voltage you gave to the track (through a transformer controller), the faster the train went,” explained Don. “Today, at least with my setup, you run a constant voltage on the track. I send about 18 volts and for older trains, that thing would be screaming around the track if it could stay on it!” He added that there is a computer that can talk to the engine and tell it what to do. He holds what looks like a large version of a TV remote.
“I can tell it what speed to go,” he said. A scroll wheel on the remote speeds up or slows down the train, with a digital readout of the exact speed. He can run one train behind the other and set the trains to run at an identical speed without worrying about one train overtaking the other on the same track.
The two trains Don will be taking to the Holiday Rotary Celebration will have Santa Claus as the engineer. He said when the train comes to a stop, he can make the train talk, an interactive enhancement sure to get young boys and girls excited. It’s  a scripted show, with one train stopping to pick up elves to help with gift delivery. He notes there is only one coal car on the train for those kids that have had a challenging year.

Don admits that trains don’t excite everyone. “The kids that are four or five years-old are absolutely fascinated by them,” he shared. He says kids can expect to see an HO (small, to-scale model trains) layout of some size, set up by Bob Laudon and Don’s setup will be around the decorated Christmas tree. Along with a buffet Christmas feast, there will also be photos with Santa and some craft projects for kids. “It’ s a family oriented event,” he says. “The money raised goes to local projects and groups, such as The Russell House for battered and abused women and children, Missouri S&T’s Engineers Without Borders group to help pay expenses on their trips to South America, helping impoverished communities get clean drinking and washing water and scholarships.

Don and Bob are doing their part to keep some magic in the holiday season and the company that lit their model train excitement is still in business. Today, Lionel is just as excited about stoking young imaginations about the joys of model railroading than they ever were, with a little marketing help. Through licensing deals with well known brands such as Harry Potter, Coca Cola, John Deere, American League Baseball, Amtrak and Walt Disney, they offer full lines of branded model railroading experiences. Their motto says, “If you dream it, you can build it.”  For Don and Bob representing both Rolla Rotary Clubs, they couldn’t agree more.

(The 18th Annual Holiday Rotary Celebration is Sunday, Dec.10 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Missouri S&T Havener Center. Adults $20 (ages 13 and up), children $10, under four years free. Tickets may be purchased from any Rotarian, Kent Jewelry or at the event.)