Preaching About The Iron Horse



"God bless my sweet wife, she's stuck with a railroading nut," reads a sign in the train room Norman Burke has spent the past few months putting together.

Trolley cars, attached to wires, are running around a town. The gondolas are traveling up and down a mountain.

"There will be lights in all these houses, and this lady will jump out into the arms of the fireman," said Burke, explaining how the display will look when the finishing touches are in place.

"This model is one-third the size of my last one and, compared to other set-ups you'll find in Payson, this one is really nothing."

"Here's a unique little car. It has an airplane on it. See, the wings come off," Burke said, picking up a flatbed car. The plane on it has folded wings.

Burke said he has loved trains since he was a little boy growing up in Chicago.

A 1931 Lionel train sits visible yet out of harm's way on a high shelf.

"That particular train I played with as a kid," Burke said. The Pennsylvania Electric GG1 HO gauge train and an S and an O gauge trolley are other keepsakes from childhood.

Burke said he remembers there was always a train going around the tree at Christmas.

"I also had a basement," he says with a smile, as the boy inside peeks through. "I had 400 feet of O gauge track laid out at one time -- lots of track. Yeah."

As an adult, he owns about 122 engines plus all the rolling stock on the walls. Four more boxes of trains are stored under the current tracks.

Each train's story is told as he points to it on the shelf.

"That particular engine is a cab forward and it was used in the high Sierras between Roseville and Truckee (in California). It was used because they had 40-some tunnels and snow sheds to put the trains through, and the engineers would get smoked out if the cab were in back. With the cab forward, the smoke in the tunnels would go behind them."


Norman Burke

The only cab forward train left is displayed in the Sacramento Train Museum.

According to Burke, in about 1905 the only way people could get up to Silverton, Colo. was by rail.

"There wasn't any ambulance or helicopters at the time, so they converted an old Model T car, put a cab on it and used it as an ambulance."

A picture, trimmed in red, of the contraption shows a less than sleek-looking white train car.

Antiques from train yards have found a home in the small room where Burke's hobby is not quite contained.

From the Milwaukee RR yards comes a semaphore (signal), a marker light for a caboose, a switch stand and light that told the engineer what track the train was going to, and numerous lanterns.

One lantern in particular is not just any antique. His fraternal grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Burke, used it in his job as a switchman at the Chicago Northwestern Proviso RR yards.

Trains have choo-chooed their way into the rest of the Burke home, from the needlepoint made by one of his parishioners to the phone in his home office that looks like a train and sounds like a train whistle when it rings.

Jim Beam ceramic and porcelain decanters masquerading as trains are displayed in the Burke living room.

"We have every one of them that Jim Beam made for trains. You take the top off the flat car or the roof off the caboose and pour it right out," said Burke.

"I met him in college and I knew he loved trains because they were all over the basement," Patricia, Norm's wife of 45 years, said.

"She's been an RN longer than we've been married," Burke interjects, smiling at his wife, perhaps trying to change the track of conversation.

His own career track went in different directions before he answered his calling. At one time, he made his living as a photojournalist.

"How did I become a preacher instead of a train conductor? My dad was a priest. I just sort of followed in his footsteps although I wasn't going to do that originally. I finally did."

When he is not busy tending to the people of his parish or acting as a chaplain for the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department or Squadron 209 of the Civil Air Patrol, he makes time for exploring.

When he is not traveling by train, he sometimes hitches his own personal boxcar (a winterized two-ton camper) to his engine (a Dooley truck) and hits the road.

"I use it to go see my other train buddies in California," Burke said.


Name: Norman Charles Burke

Occupation: Priest, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Payson

(Officially he is a canon, but he prefers to just be known as Father Burke.)

Age: 71

Birthplace: Chicago, Ill.

Family: Wife, Patricia; sons, Norman, James and Timothy; daughter, Cindy; and three grandchildren.

Personal motto: Do it well.

Inspiration: The Holy Spirit

Greatest feat: Starting a new mission in north Phoenix.

Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Trains and motorcycles.

Three words that describe Norm best, according to his wife are: Conscientious, objective and assertive.

I don't want to brag, but ... I won't. Just leave me alone and let me do my job.

The person in history I'd most like to meet is: Jesus Christ.

Luxury defined: Luxury to me is just having enough food in my mouth and a roof over my head.

Dream vacation spot: Right here.

Why Payson? It was time for me to leave the large city and the large congregation. The larger the church got, the further away I was from dealing with people. I was dealing with committees. I wanted to get back to where people were.

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