Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU ROTC cadets make Veterans Day special for avid model train collector

By Emma Ledbetter For The Spokesman-Review

ST. JOHN, Wash. – Vietnam veteran Glen Clemons has collected model trains since he was 4 years old.

Now 68, he has dozens of boxes of trains stacked in the basement of his St. John home rather than on display because he has a service-related disability that has prevented him from building special tables for running his trains.

Enter three ROTC cadets from nearby Washington State University who wanted to help out on Veterans Day. They drove to his home in the small Palouse town and got to work building two wood tables and spending hours talking with Clemons.

“This is the best day he’s had in two years,” said Penny Clemons, Glen’s wife of 38 years. “I’m pretty jazzed about it, too.”

She said Clemons is grateful not just because he can see his trains, but because he had visitors at their house to share stories.

Clemons’ father worked for the Union Pacific Railroad in Spokane. When he was a child, Clemons said he remembers going to visit his father at work and the gift of his first Lionel model train. His love of collecting model trains grew from there.

Penny Clemons’ parents worked at competitor Northern Pacific Railway, which later became Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.

“We have a lot of railroad in the family,” Glen Clemons said.

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was a high school senior and was assigned to be a nuclear machinist’s mate because he had some engineering experience from his high school classes.

However, he later chose to be a utilities technician because he realized he was colorblind.

During his time in the Vietnam War, Clemons was exposed to Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used by the military for deforestation. He suspects this exposure caused his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

He left the Navy in 1974.

The Clemonses moved to St. John about three years ago. Penny said she was afraid they were going to have to downsize from their old home in Rosalia, which might have meant Glen had to sell most, if not all, of his train collection.

They were lucky to find a house with space for his collection. But he needed new tables and struggled to find somebody to help.

They didn’t know many veterans in the area, and didn’t really know where to turn.

That’s when WSU veterans coordinator Penny Martinez connected Clemons with ROTC cadets Ryan Adamson, Matthew Flint and Reid McGregor.

Martinez said she is excited to see future leaders helping past leaders.

Now that he has tables, Glen can take his trains out of the boxes, dust them off and display them on tracks set over artificial grass. He also has accessories for his display – trees, cranes, a grain elevator and even a missile launch pad.

“This has been such an emotional lift for him,” Penny Clemons said.

The cadets said they will return for a visit once the trains are set up.

Clemons collects many different types of model trains, and recently started ordering sets from England.

The Clemonses attended train shows in Spokane for many years, but have missed them recently because of the pandemic.

Glen said he was initially afraid Penny would not like going to the train shows, but it turns out she enjoys the shows and visiting her friends year after year. Glen said he enjoys seeing younger people at the shows, as well as his hobbyist friends. He likes to give something to younger train show attendees to help their interest grow.

“People are experiences, and that’s what makes your life rich,” Glen said.