“Do you believe in magic?”
With the wave of a magic wand and an “abracadabra,” Ken Cook walked through the secret entrance — one he asked us not to divulge — to his model train room.
In the basement of the tidy Columbine Valley home, against walls painted with backdrops of cities, freight yards and mountains, sprawled Cook's colossal Lionel train display. The culmination of more than 30 years of planning and building, and a lifetime of collecting, Cook called it his “great opus.”
“Actually, a friend called it that, and I had to look up the word 'opus,' but I'd say it fits,” said Cook, a retired attorney.
Standing at the control module of the freight yard, Cook's hands began to work the buttons, switches and dials with the dexterity of a symphony conductor. The freight yard sprang to life.
Tiny steam locomotives chugged to and fro, pulling freight cars into place. Magnetic cranes plucked tiny metal bars from gondola cars. Vibrating floors shuffled tiny cows in and out of livestock cars. From the yard's control tower, a tiny foreman descended the stairs.
“The magic of Lionel is that all the accessories really work,” Cook said, firing up the other portions of the set.
A freight train traversed a mining district, the locomotive sending up puffs of smoke. A gleaming passenger train traversed a long route through mountain tunnels, past a sleepy village and back to a busy city station.
Cook, 71, got his first Lionel set at age 3 in 1953 — the high point of sales for Lionel, the company that became a cultural touchstone for generations of youngsters.
The family lived in Japan, where Cook's father was stationed as an officer in the Air Force. The family — Cook was one of four children — headed back stateside in 1956, though many cross-country moves lay ahead.
Through it all, Cook maintained his fascination with model trains. When Cook was 10, his dad hired an electrician to wire up a big set in their home in Indiana. Cook kept working on his layouts through high school.
The family work ethic served Cook well, taking him to a stint in the Air Force, then law school. In 1979 he joined a 10-man law firm in Colorado Springs, eventually making his way to the Department of Justice. His wife, Linda, served as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Through all the moves and life changes, model trains kept Cook grounded.
“It's my outlet,” he said. “My relaxation. I can focus on them.”
Cook's precise hands and analytical mind are evident everywhere in his home. His study features scratch-built models of Apollo 11's lunar lander, and a detailed model of a B-24 Liberator, a heavy bomber of the type his father flew over Europe in World War II. In a basement workshop, he is painstakingly building a wooden model of the USS Constitution.
Between the basement train set and shelves lined with hundreds more locomotives and cars, Cook estimates he's collected perhaps 5% of Lionel's golden-era offerings.
Though he and Linda had no children, Cook delights in sharing trains with youngsters. For a generation the couple has held neighborhood open houses to show off Cook's daunting collection.
He and friends have set up model train displays at museums, trade shows and festivals around the West. It was at one festival where he came to a revelation: On the box for that 1953 train set, his first, was the price tag: $49.
“The average mortgage payment in 1953 was $110,” Cook said. “My parents, living overseas and raising several children, spent half a mortgage payment so their 3-year-old could have a model train like kids back home in America. For years afterwards, living in small houses with four kids, my mom always made space for her son's big train tables. Those are the sacrifices of love. I have no children, so I pay that love forward.”
Asked what he hopes his trains mean to children, Cook recalled a train display he set up at a craft festival in Colorado Springs.
“It was a grandmother, a mom and their son, who was 15 or so,” Cook said. “The son was autistic. I asked how long they had lived in the Springs, and the mom said not long — she was going through a rather unpleasant divorce. While we were talking, I was showing the boy the trains. Letting him blow the whistle. He was elated, laughing.”
As he told the story, for the first time in a two-hour visit, Cook's attorney banter broke. He gathered himself as he choked back tears.
“His mom told me: 'This is the first time in six months I've seen my son smile.' That's what my parents gave me. That's what I want to give back.”
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