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Face of an ambassador

Mary Pickels
| Monday, Dec. 1, 2008

On the 50-by-21-foot mural painted on the side of Clapper's Building Materials in Rockwood in Somerset County, Maynard Sembower's likeness wears a conductor's cap and checks a gold pocket watch, awaiting an approaching train.

In reality, Sembower is a Pennsylvania Game Commission retiree who at age 99 has spent 16 years volunteering as a trailhead ambassador along the Great Allegheny Passage.

Though Sembower, who will turn 100 on Christmas Eve, was never a conductor, several of his brothers worked on the railroad.

"I was born in (nearby) Markleton in 1908," Sembower said, "and the railroad went in in 1910-1911. I saw it come; I saw it go."

It was his work manning the Rockwood trailhead that made him a natural subject for muralist Diane Adams.

Adams, a Washington County artist, painted the mural last summer. She was among six artists selected to contribute works of public art as part of the Trail Town Public Art Program, part of the Pittsburgh 250 celebration.

She planned to put a conductor's face on the mural. "And I wanted to make it personal, instead of generic," she said.

During her visits to Rockwood, she kept hearing about Sembower.

Although Sembower had not worked as a train conductor, he was "manning the trailhead," Adams said.

"Here was this (almost) 100-year-old man standing there faithfully," she said. "He rides his golf cart and greets visitors. I decided his face should be the face of the conductor."

The tall man who arrives at the trailhead parking lot most mornings is a familiar face to area residents.

Sembower is a font of information for bikers and hikers who often visit the small information center and gift shop he mans. He's handed out maps and brochures to visitors, and made the occasional dinner or hotel recommendation, since 1993.

"He's sort of like the trail maitre d'," said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance.

"He has a lot of vitality left," she said. "He's a very sociable person."

Several other trailheads, including ones in West Newton and Meyersdale, have visitor centers, Boxx said. Others are manned by volunteers only on weekends.

"We get a lot of feedback from Maynard in particular, based on what he hears from visitors," she said. "That's very, very valuable. People drive into Rockwood from destination unknown, and they pull in and there is a live person to help them. He's a sweetheart."

After his wife, Edna, died in 1992, Sembower found himself at loose ends.

"I thought, 'Now what am I going to do?'" he said.

A resident of Black Township, close to the Rockwood trailhead, he offered to help out and soon became the keeper of the center's keys, along with a guest book filled with names from around the world.

"They can't get rid of me," he joked.

Except for the winter months, which he spends in Florida, Sembower is a trailhead fixture.

When he's not manning the Sembower Visitor Center, named in his honor in 2006, Sembower rides his cart along the trail, checking for downed trees and other maintenance issues.

He even responds to emergencies. A few years ago, he said, a biker struck something on the trail, flew over the handlebars and hurt his shoulder. His friend went back to the center to ask for help, but said the biker did not want an ambulance. So Sembower drove his cart the three miles to where the rider had fallen and gave him a lift back to the parking lot.

A Somerset County native, Sembower came from a large family.

"My father said he had 10 sons and each son had two sisters," he said, chuckling, waiting for his visitor to do the math.

Of the 12 siblings, only he and a sister remain.

He's tickled that his image now is part of the mural Adams painted to depict the trail town.

Following the town motto, "Building a Future on a Proud Past," Adams included a salute to the town's older industries, a power plant and the Old Rockwood House hotel, a train trestle, the multistory red Wolfe Barn and an old-fashioned bicycle. She even tracked down the number -- WM734 -- on the last Western Maryland Railway train that went through on the old railroad, and placed it on the engine in the mural.

"That girl did a wonderful job," Sembower said.

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