Don Koeller thought of himself as a model train hobbyist specializing in ornamental flat cars, but a fellow train enthusiast convinced him otherwise.
The young man admiring Koeller's holiday flat cars at a train show several years ago told him he was more than a train hobbyist — he was an artist.
"That's when I began thinking of my hobby as track art, with flat cars as my canvas," Koeller said.
A look at Koeller's flat cars, about 100 of which are displayed on window ledges, shelves and model train tracks in his Dunedin apartment, offers insight into the things Koeller loves most. The cars display themes involving sports, religious and veterans holidays, favorite books and painters, and, especially, dancers.
Atop one set of flat cars dance miniature ballerinas, Argentine tango couples, the New York City Rockettes, and even a hula dancer. All reflect what Koeller, 81, considers a life-altering experience — learning to dance.
That awakening began some 30 years ago. Finding himself divorced and alone at age 50, Koeller recognized a need for change.
"I needed to find a world that was not school, church or family," said the Chicago-born educator who taught kids in elementary through high school for many years in Massachusetts.
He began square dancing in Lunenburg, Mass., where he and his former wife owned a summer home. Next came country and western, and then, about age 60, ballroom dancing.
Dancing, Koeller said, gave his life a vibrancy he felt he'd been missing.
"In 1994 a friend I met at a dance hall suggested I go on a cruise ship," he said. "I spent the next six years doing ballroom dancing on cruise ships with women who needed partners."
Koeller's interest in model trains came about accidentally through an artist he met while dancing aboard a ship in 1996. He had purchased a train set to encircle his Christmas tree and the artist helped him create a Christmas display, including ornaments she decorated for the flat cars.
Koeller continued exploring the world of model trains. While living in Massachusetts, he eventually had the whole nine yards in miniature: tracks encircling the yard, waterfalls, rock gardens, remote controls and ornaments galore. After moving to a home in Largo in 2006 as a winter resident, he operated a model train in his back yard.
Little of that full train set fits in the Dunedin condo where he has lived since 2009. The flat cars alone, however, provide interest and a creative outlet for Koeller while taking up less space.
He makes the most of the limited space. One track with sets of cars occupies a portion of the living room, another encircles a small table. The remaining cars line the window ledges or a series of shelves along a mirrored wall.
Specializing in flat cars is economical as well. Koeller purchases the cars from dealers at train shows and large mail order train supply houses for about $8 apiece. The ornaments atop the cars are the small treasures he culls mostly from garage sales and flea markets.
He admits to some favorite cars, including a series he began last year called the "Pun Railroad," which now numbers 40 cars.
"These cars reflect my love of wordplay and fun," he said.
Wound up coils of cable wire are heaped on a car called "Cable Car." A small ornamental figure sits in a silver gravy boat on a car titled "Riding the Gravy Train."
Another favorite car depicts a miniature Tom Sawyer painting a tiny white picket fence while a replica of illustrator Norman Rockwell sits nearby painting the young boy on a miniature easel.
Koeller is aiming for a larger viewing audience, although he has no intention of selling any of his creations. He would like to exhibit his cars in local museums, such as the depot museums in Dunedin and Tarpon Springs, and other venues.
An exhibit of his sports-themed flat cars is now on display at the Safety Harbor Library. Several years ago a holiday train set was on exhibit at MOSI in Tampa. This past Christmas, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa exhibited his dancer train with an array of graceful figures swaying to an unheard rhythm.
The latter series reflects Koeller's ongoing love of dancing. He goes ballroom dancing at local dance studios and the Coliseum in St. Petersburg at least three nights a week, he said, with his companion, Paula Porter of Clearwater.
He also has plans for new sets of cars that draw on his other interests, including a peace train, a civil rights train and a green train.
"I'd like some of my cars to reflect my love of history and current events," he said.
Koeller's train hobby has become a passion in recent years.
"The whole idea of a hobby is to entertain yourself doing something that reflects your personality, he said. "I also love meeting people and having a chance to tell them about my trains."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]