Donald E. Wernz Jr., 60, model train collector

July 27, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Donald E. Wernz Jr., a retired Bethlehem Steel Corp. foreman and avid model train collector who helped build the annual Kenilworth Mall Christmas garden, died of sepsis Wednesday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He was 60.

Mr. Wernz - the grandson of a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad man - was born in Annapolis and moved to Loch Raven Village as a young child. He was a 1962 graduate of Towson High School and attended Dana College in Blair, Neb., before going to work at Bethlehem's Penwood Power Station.

"The plant supplies power to the Sparrows Point plant, and he worked there for 42 years as a combustion engineer and foreman," said his wife of 36 years, the former Julie Thatcher.

He had a lifelong interest in railroading and model trains.

"His Uncle Chris gave him his first train set when he was a kid. And after we had our two sons, he said we needed to get them trains," Mrs. Wernz said.

Mr. Wernz collected model trains, and constructed a large layout in the basement of his Towson home so he could operate them.

"He had thousands of engines and cars, and was able to have seven trains running constantly," his wife said.

"He had shelves around the basement room which held the collection. A friend came over one day and said it looked like model railroad wallpaper," said a son, David Thatcher Wernz of Fallston.

"His basement was filled with it. He collected Lionel, standard-gauge, American Flyer, HO- and S-gauge trains. He also loved trolleys. You name it, and Don had it," said Bill Gough, a fellow collector and longtime friend. "And he was such a knowledgeable collector that he could look at a train set and tell you what Lionel catalog it first appeared in."

Mr. Wernz was a member of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum and Wednesday Night Train Club.

Several of the train club's 25 members had joined him since 1989 in building the 41-foot-long Christmas layout that wraps around a fountain in Kenilworth Mall and is one of the largest and most popular in the area.

It takes three weeks to get the layout up and running by the day after Thanksgiving, the traditional opening day of the Christmas shopping season.

"We called ourselves the Train Group, and Don handled all of the electronics," Mr. Gough said.

Seemingly capable of squeezing into the tightest of spaces, the burly Mr. Wernz spent most of time on his back aboard a mechanic's creeper making essential electrical connections that were needed to keep four trains, a trolley and numerous animated displays operating smoothly.

"It may have looked like a bunch of spaghetti, but Don knew where everything was. And it worked like a clockwork because he had designed all of the electrical circuitry," said Larry Backus, who worked on the project with him.

"We once figured that during the operating season, which ends after New Year's, the trains each had run 325 actual real miles. That's the distance between Baltimore and Raleigh, N.C.," Mr. Backus said.

Mr. Wernz used a model train to celebrate a wedding anniversary.

"For our 35th wedding anniversary, he took a flatcar and put a pink Cadillac on it and underneath the car was a diamond wedding band," Mrs. Wernz said.

Mr. Wernz was a member, trustee and chairman of the finance committee of Idlewylde United Methodist Church, where a memorial service was held Sunday.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Wernz is survived by another son, D. Edward Wernz III of Street; a daughter, Kristi Leigh Wernz Girdner of Ellicott City; and three granddaughters.

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