Memories of Travels with Jake

It was just before dawn as Amtrak’s eastbound Three Rivers halted in Akron in February 2005.

I was riding No. 40 along with fellow Akron Railroad Club officer Edward Ribinskas because the Three Rivers was slated to be discontinued west of Pittsburgh about a month later.

As the train sat in the Akron station, a booming baritone voice broke the silence of the Amfleet II coach. Ed and I looked at each other. Could it be . . .

Ed went back to check and, yes, that voice did indeed belong to Richard Jacobs. He, too, was making one last trip over the former Baltimore & Ohio mainline and all of us would be getting off in Pittsburgh.

Jake’s voice was one that we heard a lot over the years at ARRC meetings. It was a rare meeting when he didn’t have news to announce about the activities of the Orrville Railroad Heritage Society or the railroads that served Wayne County.

He was a prolific photographer who loved to show his images during programs at ARRC meetings.

He was a prolific writer who loved write about his travels in articles published in the ARRC Bulletin and on the ARRC blog.

You might have thought that Jake was a journalist or a teacher given how much he liked to share information with others.

You would not know in listening to him, though, that he spent more than 40 years as an aeronautical engineer. He often referenced his employment with NASA, but rarely talked about what he did there.

Maybe that was because he didn’t think it was appropriate to talk about that during a railroad club meeting, but I spent many hours traveling with Jake while chasing trains and he never talked about his career then, either.

We had some good-natured exchanges about our respective alma maters. Jake was a Purdue University grad and I’m an Indiana University grad and the two schools are bitter rivals. Yet rivalries have a way of joining people and so it was with Jake and I.

Jake was the first ARRC member to befriend me after I joined the club in August 2003.

Back then club members used to gather at the Grapevine Café in Fairlawn for dinner before the meetings.

I was a newcomer who was excited about being in the club so I attended those gatherings. As luck would have it, I was seated next to Jake at the first dinner that I attended.

Jake and I had a pleasant conversation and a friendship was kindled. That act of kindness in reaching out to make me feel at home is one that I will always remember.

When I mentioned that I was working on a book for Arcadia Publishing about the history of railroads in Akron, Jake may have been the first ARRC member to offer to provide images for that book.

Jake has presented before numerous groups and something tells me no one ever had to ask if he wanted to do that. He was always a willing volunteer.

The same held true for newsletter articles. Jake’s willingness to present and write were two traits that I came to greatly appreciate after I became ARRC president.

In making up the program schedule for the year Jake could be counted on to present.  If we needed someone to fill a slot in a tag team presentation, Jake would agree to do it.

After I started the ARRC blog, I could count on getting contributions from Jake without having to ask.

On many a day I would check my email and find an article with photographs from Jake. On some days I would be up to my ears in grading student papers and/or making lesson plans when one of Jake’s articles would come in.

Reading and editing Jake’s accounts of his latest venture to Sterling or chasing the Norfolk Southern locals in Wayne County was a welcome respite on those days.

* * * * *

Several years ago at the ARRC picnic in Clinton, we heard on the scanner that a CSX train was approaching and Jake offered to let me ride along as he chased the train west of town.

Over the years Jake and I railfanned together several times. Aside from railfanning CSX during the ARRC picnic, we chased the Ashland Railway one humid summer afternoon and photographed the R.J. Corman operations in Wooster on an unusually warm and sunny early November day.

Our ventures typically began by meeting at a McDonald’s restaurant for breakfast. I’d then park somewhere and we would be off in Jake’s Trail Blazer.

Jake was not shy about calling a railroad or inquiring in a yard office about train operations. I’d never think of doing that, but Jake seemed to get away with it. Maybe his age was an asset or he knew how to approach railroad officials.

During that chase of the Corman local in Wooster, we arrived to find the locomotive parked next to a convenience store. Jake went inside to find the crew, correctly surmising they had gone to get something to eat.

One morning we planned to chase the Akron Barberton Cluster Railway train to Rittman. I wanted to get a photograph of the train passing the restored Erie Railroad station in Barberton.

Jake had earlier called the railroad to find out what days the ABC went to Rittman. On the appointed day, we went into the yard office in Barberton where the crew was having its job briefing before starting work. They confirmed that they would be going to Rittman that day.

We parked by the Barberton depot and waited. But no train came. We then got itchy feet and drove over to yard but didn’t see the train.

I had heard them talking on the radio so they had to be somewhere close. We drove around in a futile effort to find the train. As we were doing that, the ABC job left town and went to Rittman.

It turned out that the crew served another customer first and then went to Rittman. Had we stayed put we would have eventually seen the train and I would have gotten the photo that I wanted. We even heard them talking about us on the radio.

Jake went back a week later and got the photograph, but I still don’t have it.

If Jake had a weakness it was that he was too generous at times. He wanted to show too many of his photographs and wanted to talk about them a little too much.

At a 2005 ARRC meeting Jake took out four boxes of slide carousel trays before his scheduled program. He isn’t going to show all of those slides is he? He was and he did.

There were times when I wished that Jake would be more judicious in how many photographs that he sent to illustrate his trip reports.

One time Jake sent so many images and wrote so many articles that we both lost track of what he had and had not covered.

Some images and information got posted to the blog twice and other images were out of sequence. I finally had to take everything down and start over once all of the photographs and articles had been reorganized and resent.

In recent years, Jake would share with me what he planned to present during his annual ARRC program and what he planned to send to post on the blog after he returned from one of his trips.

That is how I knew that his June 2015 show would be a review of his trip to Colorado last year.

* * * * *

I was sitting in my car in Berea this past April during the annual ARRC Dave McKay Day when my cell phone rang. It was Jake. I thought he was calling to say he would be coming late or that he couldn’t make it.

Instead, he told me that his cancer was back and he was in the hospital in Wooster. Jake had serious health problems, real serious health problems.

I just knew that he wouldn’t be presenting in June and would never present to the ARRC again. Nor would we ever be going trackside together again.

I didn’t hear anything from or about Jake for two weeks. I thought about going to the National Train Day event in Orrville and asking if anyone knew how Jake was doing.

In early May, Jake called me. I was happy to hear from him. He was quite frank in saying that his cancer was terminal and that he wouldn’t be around much longer.

We talked by phone over the next few weeks and at times the effects of the medication and his declining condition made it difficult to understand him.

One time Jake called my cell phone, but it was not turned on. Jake got my voicemail and failed to grasp that he was hearing a recording of my voice and not me in person.

“Craig, this is Jake. (long pause). Are you there? Craig, this Jake. (another  long pause). Are you there?” There would be an even longer pause and he would repeat what he had just said. It was comical and sad at the same time.

Jake arranged to make what turned out to be his last visit to Sterling. He made sure that I knew about it and I told him I would be there.

Jake being Jake, he also thought he would be able to present his Colorado program on a screen to be set up on the outdoor patio at Bradley’s restaurant.

I had never been to a gathering of the Sterling “Loopers” but having read about them so often in Jake’s posts I felt like I knew them and their Wednesday rituals.

It took awhile, but eventually Jake’s grandson Rob wheeled him over to where the Loopers hang out next to the former Baltimore & Ohio freight station that has been relocated aside the trail built on the former Erie Railway right of way.

I knew Jake was not in good condition, but the sight of seeing him in that wheelchair was depressing. Although Jake’s mind was still sharp, the medications he was taking for pain had taken their toll. We were able to converse, but Jake was laboring to do that.

He spoke about wanting to donate his photograph collection to White River Productions for the purpose of having that company do a book containing those photos. The Loopers took turns greeting him and at one point we thought a train was coming.

Rob got out Jake’s camera and prepared it so that he could make one last image of a train at Sterling. But no train came. Traffic had been halted due to a maintenance of way window.

In a cruel twist of fate, Jake could neither watch nor photograph a train during the last railfan outing of his life.

He thought he’d be able to stay in Sterling for several hours, but it was not to be. At 6 p.m. the van to take Jake back to the nursing home arrived. It was time to leave.

I took one more photograph of Jake sitting in his wheelchair with the CSX New Castle Subdivision tracks behind him. He joked with me that I could use Photoshop to add a train to the scene.

We said our farewells and shook hands. It would not be my last conversation with Jake, but it would be the last time that I saw him.

In one of those calls, he asked me to pick up some of his books from his home and take them to Orrville to mail to the historical societies to which he planned to donate them.

But his longtime partner, Barbara Cormell, said that his attorney had advised that Jake couldn’t begin disbursing his estate until he died.

I last heard from Jake a few days before his death. He left a message on my cell phone that was unintelligible. I could pick out a few words here and there, but not enough to understand what he was saying.

But I think it had something to do with having Rob download the photos from his camera and give them to me to post to the ARRC blog. Up to the very end Jake was still wanting to present.

* * * * *

This past Tuesday I was driving my wife to work at The Plain Dealer when my cell phone rang. “It’s probably Jake,” I said to Mary Ann as we barreled westward on Interstate 480.

It wasn’t. It was Tony Dannemiller calling with the news that Jake had died about an hour earlier.

On Friday night at the ARRC meeting I’ll be telling some stories about my travels with Jake. You will get to see some of Jake’s photographs and some of the photographs that I made during my travels with him.

He knew that I would be doing a program about our travels together and seemed pleased about that. He also knew that we would be going to Fostoria for our longest day outing and he regretted that he couldn’t go. I could that regret in his eyes.

Jake was resigned to the fact that he didn’t see any trains during his last railfan outing. It’s just the way that those things go sometimes, he said. He even called me the next day to say that shortly after he and I left Sterling that CSX trains began running virtually non-stop.

During one of those conversations that I had with Jake after he went into the hospital, he asked if I planned to go out later that day to railfan.

It was a nice day and perhaps this was Jake’s way of telling me not to waste them by neglecting to do something that I very much enjoy.

Jake’s funeral is this Sunday afternoon in Apple Creek. It may or may not be a nice day, but in memory of Jake I’ll stop in Sterling on my way home and get in some railfanning.

Commentary by Craig Sanders

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One Response to “Memories of Travels with Jake”

  1. Bob Farkas Says:

    You captured Jake the man and railfan in a caring and honest way. Through you, he will be remembered even better.

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