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Trussville native retires from railroad company after 37 years

By Renee C. Coleman

For The Tribune

TRUSSVILLE — For Leonard E. Coleman, the morning of May 9 was cloaked in the kind of anticipation a child experiences on Christmas morning.

Something special was looming in the air that morning, he said, something he had been anticipating for 37 years: retirement.

Coleman woke that day at 6 a.m., which was nothing unusual for the 60-year-old Trussville resident. He went to the kitchen to complete his morning routine of making tea, eating breakfast and engaging in kitchen-table conversation with his wife, Judy. After cleaning up the breakfast dishes, he showered, dressed and waited for his wife to join him for the 20-minute drive to Tarrant City, where the headquarters of CSX Transportation is located. It would be at the headquarters that Coleman would sign documents making official his long-awaited retirement from the railroad.

“I was anticipating the finality of the situation,” Coleman said. “You know that this day is coming, and when it does, it is almost unbelievable.”

Coleman is one of three men in his family who have been employed by the Alabama railroad. His maternal grandfather and his father also worked for the Alabama railroad. Coleman, along with his grandfather and father, dedicated 130 years of service to the railroad over a 91-year span.

“I was proud to carry on the tradition,” he said. “There was a sense of pride in carrying that tradition from generation to generation.”

Leonard Coleman with one of the engines he drives
photo courtesy of Leonard Coleman

Before Coleman was employed by the railroad, he served five years in the United States Coast Guard. He joined the Coast Guard in 1971, and upon graduating boot camp, was stationed in Treasure Island, off the coast of San Francisco. Following his tour at Treasure Island, Coleman was sent to Ashtabula, Ohio, where he met the future Mrs. Coleman.

“We got married and had a baby on the way, so I knew it was time to get out of the Coast Guard,” Coleman said. “I thought after leaving the Coast Guard I would go into the Alabama Marine Police, but I decided against it.”

Coleman said the railroad became an option because of his family’s history in the industry.

“Basically what I did was put my application in for the railroad, and put in an application for the Alabama State Troopers,” he said. “The railroad got back to me first, so I went with them.”

Coleman was first hired by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which ran from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. Eventually L&N Railroad merged with other railroads to form the CSX Corporation.

During his 37 years of railroad service, Coleman advanced from trainman to an engineer, following a program similar to his grandfather and father’s.

His grandfather and father began their railroad career as firemen. That was back when trains operated off hand-fired engines, Coleman said. Coal had to be shoveled into the engines to keep the trains running.

“As firemen, you did that for 16 hours a day,” said Coleman. “You needed to be a man to do that. There was no air conditioning in the summer. It was an open cab. They were subjected to the elements all year.”

If an employee works long enough for the railroad, he usually gets a nickname. Often, the nickname is a reflection of the worker’s personality. For example, Coleman’s grandfather, M.W. Holland, was nicknamed  “The Old Scolded Dog.” He received that nickname because when he was driving the train, he came through like an old scolded dog, lumbering around with his ears down, he said. “The Old Scolded Dog” worked for the railroad for 51 years.

In 1945, following  his service in World War II, Coleman’s father joined the railroad. L.E. Coleman Sr. was nicknamed  “Grunt.” Coleman said his father had a speech impediment, so he was called “Grunt” for the impediment. “Grunt” worked for the railroad for 42 years.

When Coleman finally advanced to the job of a train engineer, he earned his nickname.

“They said I never smiled, so I got the nickname ‘Chuckles,’” Coleman said.

By the time Coleman joined the railroad, diesel engines ran the trains; steam engines were a thing of the past.

At the start of Coleman’s career, his father was still working for the railroad, hauling cargo in and out of Birmingham, as his father had before him. For this reason, Coleman had the opportunity to apprentice under his father.

“I didn’t get to train with my grandfather because he was already retired by the time I came out of the Coast Guard,” Coleman said. “But my dad was still an active engineer and I got to train with my father. It was pretty neat. He was probably more stern with me when teaching me than he was with anyone else.”

Coleman’s father taught him many things, but one lesson remains with him today.

“My father taught me I had to be the best I could,” he said. “Here’s the way I look at life: My family came first and I had to provide a living for my family, so I had to be the best I could to provide a living for my family.”

Coleman estimates he covered hundreds of thousands of miles driving trains. Years ago the trains he drove carried passengers and cargo. As the railroads lost government grants, they stopped carrying passengers. The railroad had a difficult time competing with the airlines and the interstate highway system, he said.

Aside from working as a train engineer, Coleman held various union positions for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 156. As a trainman he started out with the United Transportation Union. When he advanced to an engineer, Coleman went to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and was the vice local chairman for three terms and president of the division for two terms. He sat on the safety committee, acted as chairman of the mentor program, and he sat on the forming committee of Operation Redblock, a program for railroad employees who deal with alcohol and drug abuse.

Through his 37 years of service to the railroad, Coleman has worked with hundreds of people, all with different personalities and different backgrounds. He’s made lifelong friendships, which have helped him get through his arduous work schedule. But, the greatest bond that has been forged is that with Judy, whom he has been married to for 41 years.

“She became a railroad wife, meaning she is your wife but she is like a widow because you are gone all the time,” he said. “The most difficult part of the job is being away from family. For a large part of my career I have been on call seven days per week, 24 hours per day including holidays. I never had to worry about my marriage. She filled the shoes of mom and dad while I worked because I worked long hours.”

The long shifts, being on call and working holidays provided Coleman with the means to support his family and a comfortable retirement. Now that Coleman has made the transition from the railroad to retirement, he will have more free time to do what he wants, but he doesn’t have any regrets about his railroad career.

“Every day on a train is a story,” Coleman said. “Sometimes tragedy happens. Sometimes you have a good trip. It all boils down to the fact that old railroad workers are like pieces of abandoned railroad. We just fade away into history. That’s just the reality of life on the railroad.”

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