By Gordon Wilson, TCA 76-10233
Sunday, July 5, 2009, 10:30 PM brought to a conclusion one of the most unique TCA Conventions EVER! What began on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-November of 2001, a scant few weeks after one of America’s “darkest” days, concluded on a moonlit evening at a luxury resort in America’s 5th largest city, Phoenix, Arizona.
Two close friends had just concluded a round of golf at the brand new Arnold Palmer designed Wildfire Course when an artist’s conception of a new, yet to be built J. W. Marriott Resort was noticed near the temporary clubhouse. These friends, Paul Wassermann and Gordon Wilson, were also Past TCA Presidents and members of the 2009 Desert Division 55th TCA National Convention Steering Committee. Three days later, Paul had a tentative contract. At the time of the original agreement, there was one golf course, an artist’s conception of the resort, and acres of barren, flat Sonoran Desert near the North Phoenix/Scottsdale border. Intuition, faith, and progressive thinking, the three main ingredients of the Desert Division, resulted in what we’re sure the 900 plus attendees to the 55th Annual TCA Convention, an experience based on Southwestern Hospitality, will remember as an experience that will rank among the finest of its kind, ever!
Nearly 80 years ago, Sir Winston Churchill spoke to his nation under far different circumstances and said, “Never have so many owed so much to so few.” The five-member Convention Steering Committee of the Desert Division can confidently repeat those words to the 20 Committee Chairs for the fine work done by them and their “worker bees.” Without their tireless efforts and sleepless nights, many things which the conventioneers came to take for granted just never would have happened. To say Thank You or Gracias seems so inadequate for the job that was done, but that is all we have. Please accept the public Thank You from a very grateful Steering Committee. Once again, the Desert Division has shown the TCA that at least in the case of Conventions, size does not make a difference. The Desert Division is one of TCA’s smallest (member wise) Divisions. We are pleased to be of service to the TCA and some younger members are already looking forward to the next Convention to be hosted here in the Valley of the Sun, sometime in the future. The gauntlet has been tossed!
This was truly a TCA Convention of firsts, the most obvious of which is that it was held over a major Holiday weekend, specifically July 4, Independence Day, which led to our mottos of “Celebrate America” and “A Star Spangled Convention.” TCA Conventions are always held in fine upscale facilities’ however, none has ever been held in a World Class Resort. The J. W. Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa is synonymous with luxury: from your very first step into its “larger-than-life” lobby until you walk into your oversized room, each with a patio or balcony and a scenic view, magnificent bathroom, storage space, bedding, and a 27” plasma flat-screened TV.
The Welcome Party featured nearly as many silent auction items for the spouse or family member as it did for the TCA member. There were docents and DVD’s on every tour, no matter how long or short. In lieu of a riverboat trip, we treated our group of merry makers to a Southwestern Fiesta – a sumptuous repast of American and Mexican food followed by a combination American/Mexican Rodeo, while a Mariachi band entertained the crowd.
Now for some Banquet firsts. A large 48-star American flag was draped above the head table. It had been rescued from a U. S. Navy World War II Battleship. After the Pledge of Allegiance to that “battle worn” ensign led by Major General and Past TCA President Robert Davenport, another first presented itself in the person of Rory Majenty, Public Relations Officer of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, whose tribal lands are located near the resort. He first gave the invocation in his native tongue, Yavapai, and then translated it for the masses on hand for the Convention’s closing Banquet.
Angela Trotta-Thomas has donated framed prints and lithographs of her art work to countless TCA Conventions in the past. Never has she created a new, one of a kind, oil painting for a Convention. The Desert Division was able to impose upon Angela to make an exception, which she did and for which we are grateful. Some very spirited bidding from this “Celebrate America” oil developed between two former Desert Division Presidents, Gordon Wilson and Fred Hunter. Fred emerged as the successful bidder, so this first ever oil painting for a TCA Banquet will be staying in The Valley of the Sun.
Now for a synopsis of the whole Convention. I hope these brief recollections will help cement your own experiences between June 28 and July 5, 2009. The Desert Division thanks everyone who attended and in any way contributed to this outstanding team effort. Sit back, relax, read on, and Remember!
As a member of the Steering Committee of the 2009 TCA National Convention, I guess it would be considered somewhat prejudiced if I were to say I think we outdid ourselves from 1997, and by nearly everyone’s account, our first Convention in 1997 was the bell weather by which all subsequent TCA Conventions have been measured. I guess that means this one was even better than that one. If it wasn’t, it wasn’t because we didn’t try to make it so. What began as a family adventure in a five-star resort, the J. W. Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa, would end as a memorable vacation for families from around the country.
Buses didn’t break down. They didn’t get lost, and everyone was on time with plenty of time to spare. We started the Convention with a baseball game at Chase Field between the Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Chase Field is very unique, what with its swimming pool, retractable roof, and mega choices of foods ranging from Philly Cheese Steaks to Sushi, and nearly everything in between. Another group of Conventioneers headed north for a ghost town high in the mountains north of our Territorial Capital, Prescott, and then descended into the Verde Valley for a wonderful ride on the Verde Canyon Railway, where they were treated to all manner of native Arizona wildlife, including some nesting Bald Eagles and a herd of wild horses.
The next day, Monday, June 29, busloads of persons were delighted to feast their eyes on America’s largest and most magnificent “hole in the ground,” better known to the rest of the world as the Grand Canyon, some 10 million years in the making and still not finished. Each movement of a cloud brings a new and spectacular view never before seen upon the mile deep canyon walls of this, the most visited of America’s National Parks and one of the TRUE natural wonders of the world. Getting there on the old Santa Fe railway line is only half the adventure. It is one thing to see it on the Discovery Channel – quite another to experience it up close and personal with friends and fellow members of the TCA. A few folks stayed around to play a round of golf in the TCA Convention Tournament. Everyone was a winner, with Richard Tashjian having the best scratch score and Lynne Martin and Bill Kotek tied for best adjusted score under the Callaway Handicap System.
It continued like this all week long. Trip after trip, tour after tour. Folks toured Luke Air Force Base, noted for its association with the NASA Space Program. Those with a scientific mind enjoyed the Challenger Space Museum, with its space mission challenge appropriate for adults. The Heard Museum houses one of the finest collections of artifacts and informed docents regarding our Native American Heritage and available only in Phoenix, Arizona. It truly is a world class facility – if you took this trip you surely know why, now!
Phoenix is also home to one of only two edifices devoted to firefighting in the whole of the USA. Fire apparatus dating back to the 17th Century right to the present will give you a true appreciation for those men and women who daily risk their lives so that others may live. A visit to the Hall of Flame contains not just fire trucks, but a touching memorial to the men and women who gave their all on September 11, 2001. Meteor Crater and the La Posada Hotel, one of only two remaining operating Harvey Houses from the heyday of the Santa Fe Railroad, combined a natural wonder with the opulence of a bygone era.
Peter Atonna’s layout is legendary. A trip north to see it and three others was the first to sell out. Western art, antiques galore, complete collections, and a vivid imagination gave folks more to view in one day than most see in a month. Lunch, catered by a local civic group, was served in Peter’s barn, freshly cleaned and ready, decorated for a Fourth of July celebration. Other attractions took folks south to Tucson. Here the world-famous Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum featured native flora and fauna. A photo stop at the “Dove of the Desert,” Mission San Javier del Bac, preceded an afternoon of playing with trains at Tucson’s largest miniature railroad, the Toy Train Operating Museum. What a wonderful way to spend a day!
Wednesday night’s Welcome Party was unlike any other ever – not only were there wonderful trains and model railroad accessories, but there were dozens of items for the spouses and children of the TCA members to bid on – things from all over the world: leather goods, jewelry from Austria, silken items from China, dolls from the Caribbean, blown glass from Central America, original oil and water color paintings of trains with wonderful matting and frames. Why, there was even a tool box filled with hundreds of dollars worth of brand new tools. On top of that, there were plenty of tables and chairs to sit and kibitz with attendees, both past acquaintances and new found friends, while casually sipping a beverage and consuming some Fourth of July “fare” like hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, and other normally expected holiday goodies.
The next day was a cacophony of events from which to choose, including several G Gauge layouts in Mesa, Arizona, which must have been an illusion to many who imagined a “garden layout” as just that – a single train running through a little garden. Who would have ever thought about a 110 car consist being pulled over several acres by a plethora of GP-7’s? Those who were even more adventurous set out on their own to visit the Open House offerings. Several local members hosted guests at their homes, while the Scottsdale Railroad Park and its three clubs provided non-stop toy train activity.
Frank Lloyd Wright was alive and well that day too! His school for budding Architects in Scottsdale was topped off by a visit to a layout with approximately 700 figures doing various things, including a group of dogs lined up waiting their turn at the town’s ONLY fire hydrant. Others ventured to the most beautiful part of Arizona, Sedona with its unusual red rocks and the exciting Pink Jeep Tour. After a box lunch, folks could enter Tlaquepaque for up-scale shopping before heading back up tree-lined Oak Creek Canyon. Cameras were operating non-stop. Many people were ready to call it a day, but most were just warming up, as a jaunt south took them to the Corona Ranch and a Mexican Fiesta, complete with a joint American/Mexican Rodeo. Keeping everyone in fine spirits for the whole evening was a 5-piece Mexican Mariachi Band.
Though the trading pits were open on Friday, several attendees took advantage of the tour offerings for the family. Out of Africa is a wildlife theme park with a zoo, safari caravans, chances to feed the animals, and “Tiger Splash,” the only act of its kind, with tigers cavorting in the pool with their trainers for an afternoon of fun. Another activity was the Gourmet Cooking Class, with a selection of fine offerings that folks could create and then eat. The children loved the Challenger Space Museum, with its program for youth. Those conventioneers with children found entertainment in the Kids Club Room, filled with everything from Brios to games and puzzles, as well as a child-high layout for the “youngens” to operate.
The Public Display area was filled with layouts appropriate for everyone from the very young to the seasoned toy train lover. New Mexico was represented with a “child-friendly” layout and a game for the kids to find various items. Our own Division Module, with steps for the younger children to stand on (made by our own Bryan Rench), was a popular two-day attraction. The S-Gaugers had their module going full tilt, with trains and scenery to thrill both the members and the general public. Lionel had a 20’ x 20’ layout and display, manned full-time by their personnel to answer any questions about new production for 2009.
Friday and Saturday saw many persons visit our Public Display Room, which contained many extremely sought after pieces. Among these were the famous Ives White Passenger Set and an even rarer Boucher Blue Comet Passenger Set. All the way from New Jersey came a Lionel 2 7/8” #300 Trolley Car from 1903, presumably the oldest item at the Convention. If you thought that, you were wrong. In one of the cabinets, if you looked closely, you would have seen the only known copy of the very first Lionel 1900 Catalog. Ironically, it contains not a single Toy Train item, although it was later that year that J. L. Cowen put together his famous “cigar box” looking train running in a Department Store window, allegedly advertising the items in its box. The problem was that the “buyers” wanted the train, not the boxes of soap and batteries and whatever else was for sale. Thus was born the Electric Lionel Train – a pretty good electrical toy accident, wouldn’t you say? In that same case was the 1915 very first Lionel prototype Passenger O Gauge Set, pulled by a #703 Electric Locomotive. The large cabinet contained just about every Lionel toy train item made in 1971. Why 1971? Well, that is the year the Desert Division of the TCA was granted full Division Status. If you bought a Lionel train that year, what was in that case is what you would have been buying. Looking out the door of this hallway, it would have been easy to compare the Lionel exhibit of 2009 with the Lionel catalog items of 1971 and wonder how they ever made it to where they are today.
Friday night is traditionally Layout Tour night for TCA Conventions. We had four different tour offerings. Those interested in Live Steamers went to the northwest to see exhibits running the gamut from an HO layout to the trains one can actually sit on. A second trip went north east to see the Cole Gibbs collection, plus Angelo Lautazi and Marty Wik, whose layouts had been filmed just a month earlier for a Tracks Ahead program. A third bus headed for Fountain Hills to see Ken Burling’s house-sized layout, Gordon Wilson’s complete Post-War collection, and Paul Wassermann’s classic collection of Pre-War treasures in the “ultimate train room,” a sunken room overlooked by a 1950’s bar and a Lionel Binnacle from a World War II ship. The fourth trip made a circuit of the Scottsdale area, where Fred Hunter, Tom Stange, and Paul Wassermann exhibited what can be done in a large setting.
The Banquet on Saturday night was a huge success. A large 48-star flag from a World War II Battleship was draped behind the head table and saluted in our Pledge of Allegiance by Major General Robert Davenport. A Native American, Rory Majenty, Public Relations Officer of the nearby Fort McDowell/Yavapai Indian Nation, gave the Invocation, and dinner commenced. After some introductions, the concluding Banquet Auction began and the bidding was quite spirited from beginning to end.
Angela Trotta-Thomas created a first-ever Original Oil Painting for the 55th Annual TCA National Convention. Entitled CELEBRATE AMERICA, it depicted the Desert Southwest in its cowboy heyday, complete with stagecoach, Santa Fe Engine, and the Lionel Celebrate America wavy flag Mint Car (a Desert Division fund-raiser). From the beginning of the bidding, it was evident that the painting was going to stay in the Valley of the Sun. Two serious bidders emerged, Gordon Wilson and Fred Hunter. When all was said and done, Fred was the winning bidder by a scant margin. The two men shook hands and the Banquet ended, but not the Convention.
There was still one more trip. Just as the 1997 TCA Convention had ended with a Sunday trip to the Verde Canyon Railroad, so would the 2009 Convention. At 9:00 AM on Sunday, July 5, 2009, the final two buses of the 55th TCA National Convention pulled out of the J. W. Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa and headed for northern Arizona. The train ride, again, did not disappoint. The scenery was as spectacular as ever and the Bald Eagles made several appearances for our guests. Instead of a ghost town on this trip, we opted for some cowboy “Hi-Jinks.”
At dinner that evening, the guests were treated to some superb Western “grub” at the Blazin’ M Ranch in Cottonwood, Arizona. Concluding the meal was a fine show of Tall Tales, hilarious stories, and even funnier skits, plus some wonderful Country & Western music performed by a quintet of very talented musicians. We even came very close to getting Nancy Swan married off to a really “handsome” dude who had a voice like an Angel – literally! He had recently retired from the Broadway (as in New York City) stage.
When the buses arrived back at the Resort at 10:30 PM, everyone aboard agreed that it had been a spectacular Convention, about the best they’d ever attended, AND they couldn’t wait until next June 20 when they’d all meet again in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.