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A Final Tribute to a Monon fan

Many people will question why I am using this memory. I suppose folks that it is the beauty of being the Webmaster and having control of content. I consider this a fitting final tribute to my brother John and our love of the Monon.

This past August, John lost his battle with cancer. He fought the good fight but in the end he lost the war. For fifty six years John was my big brother. The Monon Railroad played a big role in our lives. There were many a day when John and I stood at the window in Grandpa’s tavern and watched as passenger trains arrived at the depot in Lowell, or freight rumbled through town. In 1963 Dad and Mom bought the business and moved the business to a new building across Washington Street but closer to the mainline. John and I continued our train watching from the new building. Our favorite spot was a wooden bench on the west side of the building. Dad would not allow us to stand near the tracks because of the fear one of his boys would get sucked under as the freights passed.

As kids, we spent an inordinate amount of time in and around the railroad. From helping Mr. Cripe take care of the depot, to just playing on the baggage carts. Don was the local Scoutmaster and since we were both in the Boy Scouts, we were always in and out of the depot.  North of the Mill Street crossing there once was a cattle bridge that served as our personal playground and objective when we played “combat” or any other numbers of games. These were the days when kids were allowed to go outside and run around and play without fear of something bad happening. This bridge was a favorite haunt of the neighborhood gang. On many days our backyard Army would capture and hold this bridge and yes, on occasion a watermelon or pumpkin just happened to fall off the bridge onto a passing train. Since the statutes of limitations have all expired, I can finally admit it. That bridge held special memories.

As kids, we also did some very dumb thing where the railroad was concerned. One of the most memorable is when our gang woke up a sleeping section gang sleeping in camp cars sitting on a siding near Hardings. John and I managed to bid a hasty retreat and were spared the wrath of the angry workers. One guy was not so lucky. He was delivered to the local authorities who contacted his parents, who in turn grounded him. He also was sentenced to sweep out the car a couple of times. Needless to say we never interrupted or played in the cars when they were at Lowell. We did learn our lesson. One of the other dumb things we liked to do was jump from the roofs of spotted boxcars into a pile of sand at the Lake County Highway garage, also near Hardings.  We always thought it was fun. We would climb the ladder to the roof, then run across the top of the boxcar and launch ourselves into the sand pile. Great fun, until the county dumped a load of rock salt near the sand. John took a flying leap and overshot the sand and landed face first in the salt. We all laughed until we recognized that he was really hurt and in a lot of pain. That was a tough one to explain to Mom, who helped to fix his wounds. That was our last time jumping off boxcars.

John and I also were afforded the pleasure of riding on a local freight between Pleasant Ridge and Monticello. This ride was courtesy of Junior Cooper. Junior was friends with our father and on our way to Shaffer Lake, Dad spotted Junior near the elevator and we stopped to talk. It was then that Junior invited Dad, John and I to hitch a ride. We rode in one of the rider cars behind BL2 #32. What a thrill it was for two young boys. In 2010 when I was accorded the pleasure of riding the cab of #32 at the Kentucky Railway Museum, I had to call John and gloat. He muttered some four letter words into the phone but he did admit that it brought back so many memories of our one and only ride on the Monon and he was jealous. Both of us were also in attendance when passenger service on the Monon faded into memory. It was a big event in Lowell. The high school band played “Louie Louie” and other songs as the final passenger train made a stop in Lowell. The Fire Department sent units and there was quite a crowd. Many decades later, we were surprised to see our Father and youngest sister Donna pictured in the George Hilton book about the Monon. This was just one more connection between John and I and the Monon.

As we grew older and our interests changed, the Monon was still in the background. Over the years we both modeled the railroad. Both John and I built HO scale model layouts based on the Monon. John put away the trains in 1988 and focused on his profession of Firefighting and EMS. A career firefighter, John spent 38 years in the profession. In 2007 when he was first diagnosed with cancer and about the time he discovered he was about to become a Grandpa, he dusted off the old Lionel set and decided to step back in. He, naturally, claimed that he was just doing it for his grandson, but he was not fooling me. He missed those fun filled days as kids when we spent hours and hours running trains in our basement. Within a few months the Lionel locomotives were all repainted in Monon livery. John started attending train shows, which I happened to be selling merchandise for the Stores. John purchased a Monon BL2 and the hook was set again. In 2011 he attended the Convention Swap Meet and enjoyed meeting man Society members. He wanted to attend the Saturday tour and excursion at Hoosier Valley but was instructing an investigation class for local firefighters and could not. He spoke of attending the 2012 Convention in French Lick.

Soon a large Lionel layout was built in his living room. Then he started working on a G scale outdoor layout that ran through his back yard. Over the years both layouts were expanded and detailed with John’s special brand of humor and sarcasm. We often joke that pure rivet counters would shudder if they visited his layouts, but John didn’t care. He was pleased with the Monon world he was creating. He often told me that sitting there watching the expressions on his grandson’s face, or the nieces and nephews, transported him back to Tom and John Kepshire running trains in the basement. In fact, during one weekend, when his grandson was visiting and my sisters son Josh was also at Uncle John’s, they sat on stools fascinated by the black and gold BL2 pulled a freight train around and around the layout. John walked away from the layout and admitted that he was having flashbacks to our childhood and how we could operate our Lionel for hours on end. Then after his 2009 surgery and subsequent forced retirement, John and I spent many hours running his trains and telling childhood stories.  Building his layouts was therapy to him. He was able to forget the sentence he was facing and it brought him enjoyment. When one building or scene was completed, he would step back and decide what to do next. Up until his surgery in June of 2012 which he never recovered from, he kept building and improving his layouts. He passes on a family legacy and tradition. His grandson, my granddaughter and the nieces and nephews are now ardent Monon fans. Mission accomplished big brother.

August 3, 2012, John passed away. Maybe the final connection with the Monon occurred during his funeral service. At the visitation, during the Firefighter Service, at the end as the firefighters passed by, the haunting strains of locomotive horns sounded. I knew it was the southbound Amtrak approaching town, but it just seemed so “appropriate.” Even the Chaplin commented on John’s love of railroads. The next day, as they carried his casket to the fire engine, as they came out of the funeral home, again the sound of horns sounded as if on cue. I believed it was a final tribute to his love of railroads and the Monon. John was many things to many people but to me he was my older brother, friend and another lifelong Monon fan.

By Tom Kepshire


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