Keeping history moving: Carnegie Science Center's Rogers takes pride in railroad, Requin
By Rex Rutkoski
Published: Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 6:39 p.m.
While it just may be happenstance that Patty Rogers has never lived where she couldn't hear a train whistle, it seems no less sweet serendipity.
As curator of historic exhibits at Carnegie Science Center, it's Rogers' responsibility to carry on one of the region's longest running, most treasured traditions, the Miniature Railroad & Village.
Each year, the velvet rope comes down for a new season for the railroad on the day after Thanksgiving. Between now and September, when the railroad closes annually for refurbishments, more than 400,000 people will have seen Rogers' and her staff's painstakingly detailed re-creation of scenes of the Pittsburgh area through the late 1930s. New to the railroad this year is a model of the fortress-like Allegheny County Mortuary, completed in 1902.
“My most joyful moments are when the visitors pour into the gallery for a new year. I love to watch their expressions and to listen,” says Rogers, who was a freelance artist before coming to the Science Center 22 years ago.
The Cecil native and resident believes that much of the fascination with trains, particularly in Western Pennsylvania, comes from the fact they were so much a part of life, part of the landscape as they snaked through nearly every neighborhood.
Growing up, the Canon-McMillan High graduate (class of '72) timed her departure for the school bus by listening to the engines of the Montour Railroad as they emerged from a tunnel near her house. When she heard the whistles blowing, she knew she only had a few minutes to make it across the tracks that crossed her family's long driveway.
Recollections of another kind also vie for the attention of Rogers, who was very surprised to be asked in 2004 to also manage the Science Center's historic submarine, the USS Requin, moored outside the building in the Ohio River.
“Let's say, I had a lot to learn about submarines for a start,” says Rogers, who embraced the challenge and today is the first female president of the Historic Naval Ships Association, which represents more than 125 museums and 185 ships.
While the organization remains decidedly male, “Patty is far from intimidated and holds her own beautifully,” says William Cogar of Annapolis, Md., a member of the association's board of directors.
Cogar, recently retired president and CEO of the Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Va., and former professor of naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy, finds Rogers collegial, energetic and professional, and says he is impressed with her vision, business savvy and tenacity.
So is Jeffrey Nilsson, executive director of the Virginia-based Historic Naval Ships Association. “She took the reins of this male-dominated organization and was prepared to quickly assist in moving it forward,” he says.
Though being asked to manage the USS Requin was unexpected, she began to see the two exhibits (the railroad and the submarine) as similar in the way people connect with them, or have important personal histories connected with them.
“Both exhibits have so many stories to tell. They spark the imagination in very unique ways. I was honored to be entrusted with such a responsibility,” she says.
Managing the submarine has led to many interesting “learning journeys,” she says, including cruising and diving aboard an active-duty nuclear submarine (USS Pittsburgh) out of Port Canaveral, Fla., in 2011. “It was an amazing, exciting, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says.
Navy veteran Huey Dietrich of Shaler, commander of the U.S. Submarine Veterans, USS Requin base, was along for that trip.
“I was impressed with how well she was able to adjust to the experience of being under water for the entire afternoon. Others might have been nervous, but Patty proved seaworthy,” he says. “Patty is a hands-on professional who makes an individual feel like part of the team with down-to-earth knowledge of the Requin.”
He is appreciative of the annual submarine memorial service she has arranged on board the Requin.
“It is one of the most moving days of my year,” Rogers says. “My heart fills with pride in appreciation of their service.”
Capt. Michael Savageaux, former commanding officer of the USS Pittsburgh, says her dedication to learning and experiencing activities first-hand is an asset to the Requin's ability to accurately educate its audience. He recalls that, on the USS Pittsburgh cruise, she “crawled around, over and even inside the spaces in the ship, as eager as any new sailor.”
When the weather turned “fairly interesting,” he says, Rogers, in true submariner fashion, donned some of the ship's foul-weather gear “and toughed it out” on the bridge.
Savageaux, who currently directs training at the Naval Submarine School in Groton, Conn., says he has been very impressed by her commitment to excellence and detail in everything she does. “The attention and artistry found in the train display is unmatched, and her passion and artistry come through in it. I have made a point of having my crew members visit the exhibit during our periodic visits to the city.”
Ron Baillie, co-director of the Science Center, lauds Rogers as “somebody you could never replace.”
While you can find a miniaturist, an exhibit developer and an artist, “when you roll it all together and overlay it with her passion, it's a combination you just couldn't replicate,” he says.
“It's so much more than a job for Patty. It's a calling,” he says, “and it's contagious.”
Many others have noticed.
Charlene Beck of Bradford Woods, a volunteer presenter at the railroad and village, says Rogers is one of the most creative people she knows, possessing the ability to work well under pressure and with a wide range of people.
Not only is she a skilled artist and modeler, Beck says, she also is an excellent teacher. “The fact that she now has me, a former banker with no artistic training whatsoever, doing miniature landscapes and scenery on the layout is testimony to that,” she says.
Tom Murphy was mayor of Pittsburgh when he began volunteering to make buildings for the railroad “with a lot of help from Patty,” he recalls. He found it a relaxing and quiet part of his early morning before he went to his office.
“She is very patient managing the volunteers and all the visitors. Patty is very committed to excellence in the presentation,” Murphy, now senior urban fellow for the Urban Land Institute, says. “There are no kits to build those buildings.”
Model-train buff Dave Minarik, drummer for the Clarks and owner of Mercer Junction Train Shop, says her attention to detail and precision has earned the respect and admiration of many modelers worldwide.
“She is truly worthy of being called a master in her field,” he says. “She has taught me to be a better modeler by thinking outside the box and looking at the world in general in a new light. Patty is one of my most favorite people on the planet!”
Rogers says she loves the creativity involved in all aspects of her work. The railroad and submarine are a team effort, she says, the result of the talent and passion of many dedicated volunteers and staff.
She is motivated by her desire to help keep both exhibits viable and relevant in a dynamic way for future generations, while always respecting their history.
“If it is a mantle, it's not heavy, and it's a responsibility I appreciate being able to have,” she says.
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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