Shop owner brings together kids and trains

Greg Stewart, owner of Stew’s Hobby Shop in Avalon displays a model train set typical of the ones that he will donate to area children during the upcoming holiday season. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

Time was that when kids were planning future careers, they often put "train engineer" near the top of their lists. And there was no better way to get a feel for driving the tracks than to have a model train chugging around the Christmas tree or maybe set up all year long on a platform in the basement or in a spare room.

Those days have passed, of course, replaced by Fortnite and dozens of other video games and electronics that have captured the attention and imagination of players of all ages.

But Greg Stewart, owner of Stew's Hobby Shop, located just across the street from the Avalon borough hall on California Avenue in Avalon, is doing his best to keep the interest in trains alive, just as he has been doing for the past several years. Ten years ago, his shop was in Bellevue. Now retired from 35 years as a security director for two local hospitals, and as a part-time police officer for 15 years, and as director of public safety at South Hills Village Mall for about 12 years, Stew now has the time to spend at his favorite hobby -- his shop.

"I've expanded quite a bit since Bellevue," Stew said, not referring to the size of his shop, which is relatively small, but rather in services provided. He now also buys stamps and American coins and currency, and he services model trains that need some professional attention to get back on track.

He has been honing his skills for nearly 40 years, all self-taught, and he is always ready to pass information and skills on to young people.

"We repair trains of all gauges," he said, pointing out the varying sizes of the Lionel, American Flyer and other models stacked along the walls. "Gauge," for the unknowing, refers to the distance between the outside rails of the track.

His train enthusiasm is not limited to sales and service, though. In fact, his zeal for his hobby takes a giant leap when he begins talking about one of his favorite annual activities, the "Trains for Tots" program, a nonprofit started by Greg and his wife, Lynn, nearly a decade ago at his Bellevue location where he gave away 25 train sets to children, ages 7-13.

With the help of a fellow enthusiast, Bob Evans, a volunteer with the Ohio Valley Lines Museum, they gave away 75 sets in the second year and 150 in the third. Greg hopes to round out the decade-long train gifting by distributing at least 125 sets this year, a number that would put him over 1,000.

"I'm not boasting," Greg said slightly sheepishly, "I was a Jefferson Award winner for this project. Received it in May of 2017." As explained on their Web site, "The Jefferson Award honors individuals for their achievements and contributions through public and community service."

Some of the trains are new, purchased by Greg and Bob. Others are sets that have been donated by people cleaning out attics or basements, most reconditioning work being done by Bob. All come with tracks, cars, engine, transformer and directions on how to assemble and maintain the set.

Donors planning to drop off train sets at the Avalon shop should wait until early September, as Greg has been "sidetracked" with disc surgery that will keep the shop closed until then.

But he is anxious to get back to the work he truly loves.

"By late September, we'll be going full blast, getting ready for Christmas," Greg said.