John J. Diefenbach Jr., 78, devotee of streetcars, Beth Steel draftsman

July 24, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John J. Diefenbach Jr., a retired Bethlehem Steel Corp. draftsman who enjoyed sharing his affection and extensive knowledge of streetcars with visitors to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, died of pneumonia Tuesday at St. Agnes HealthCare. The longtime Catonsville resident was 78.

Mr. Diefenbach was born in Baltimore and reared on Arunah Avenue, the son of a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad clerk.

"His dad did a lot of traveling by train, and he'd take him along once in a while. The family also took vacations by train, so he grew up riding them and streetcars, which were his first love," said his wife of 53 years, the former Jane Dowling.

In his youth, before the Beltway, Interstate 95 and the Jones Falls Expressway, Mr. Diefenbach enjoyed riding the streetcars of United Railways & Electric Co. and later the Baltimore Transit Co., which connected the city and suburbs with hundreds of miles of tracks.

"He grew up in an era when the streetcar was the only way to go. If you went downtown or to school or the movies, you went by streetcar," said Paul Ritterhoff, a longtime friend and fellow member of the museum.

"We even took streetcar dates sometimes, and while I didn't share his passion for them, I went along with it," Mrs. Diefenbach said.

After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1943, he enlisted in the Army and served in Europe as a staff sergeant with the 24th Division. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War and saw combat.

"He suffered severe frostbite and cracked ribs. After he recovered, he was sent back into battle. It was something he didn't often talk about," Mrs. Diefenbach said.

From 1951 to 1987, when he retired as chief draftsman, Mr. Diefenbach worked for Bethlehem Steel's Buffalo Tank Division in Fairfield.

In his retirement, Mr. Diefenbach devoted hours of volunteer time to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, which he joined in 1990. The wearer of badge No. 1217, he eventually qualified as a motorman and conductor.

Wearing his regulation Baltimore Transit Co. dark-blue serge motorman's suit with money changer, watch and visored cap, he was the epitome of a streetcar motorman.

"After he qualified, John started working weekends, and then he began helping out with the Wednesday school and seniors tours. He'd even volunteer to do the 3 a.m. insomniac tours that came to the museum. He was really good with people of all ages," said C. Ben Bates, a retired Baltimore County public school educator and 36-year streetcar museum member.

"John was all over the museum. He did a little bit of everything, and whenever you needed help, he'd pitch right in," Mr. Bates said.

Mr. Diefenbach's favorite car to operate was the Peter Witt, a model that was plentiful during the 1920s and 1930s.

"He had a certain style when it came to operating the museum's cars. He was a very smooth operator," Mr. Ritterhoff said.

Mr. Diefenbach assembled an extensive photo collection of Baltimore streetcars and transfers from around the world.

"He took very detailed roster shots of cars on the street and in car barns and yards," Mr. Ritterhoff said.

Mr. Diefenbach was a member and former treasurer of Sincerity Lodge No. 181 and Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Catonsville, where services were held Thursday.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, George J. Diefenbach of Catonsville; three daughters, Patricia J. Havranek of Reisterstown, Lucille M. Loeffler of Roundhill, Va., and Susan L. Diefenbach of Catonsville; and three grandsons.

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