Model railroading becomes lifelong hobby for finance expert

By day, Greg Harter has had a knack for numbers. Good at accounting, the Columbus man used this skill to climb the ladder in the corporate world of finance.

Starting with a 23-year stint in financial roles with Cummins, the local Fortune 150 company, Harter rose to director of finance for the Engine Division. With his strong business acumen, Harter also found success later in his career with subsequent employers.

But away from the office, Harter tapped into other skills — electrical, mechanical and creative abilities — for a hobby in model railroading. After stepping away from full-time career obligations at age 58, the Columbus man’s involvement with model trains began to pick up steam.

The evidence can be found in the lower level of the Tipton Lakes home Harter — now 80 — shares with wife Marilyn, where a 6-by-12-foot model train platform that first took shape in 1978 fills hours of his retirement downtime.

Over the past 44 years, Harter has continued to add to the basement HO-gauge display with new model buildings, train-car designs and backdrops. And for 28 of those years, Harter has shared his love of model railroading with fellow members of the Columbus Area Railroad Club, which he helped found in 1994 and served as treasurer for 23 years.

By the time Harter got his first model train at age 6, a gift from his grandparents, his dad had already taken him to watch real, full-size train engines pull into the station — a fascination that never faded into adulthood.

Harter’s first train, a Louis Marx set from the 1940s, was O-gauge. It was designed at 1/48 of full size, similar to the well-known Lionel model trains of the time. But with smaller-sized HO trains, at 1/87 scale, you can pack much more onto the same sized platform — and Harter does.

“The more you look, the more you see,” Harter explains, using a laser pointer to direct a visitor’s attention to particular details of his train platform.

One is the Baptist Chapel Car, a model train car Harter designed and built about 10 years ago. It captures an era of American religious life in the 1890s, before church buildings gained widespread footing west of the Mississippi River.

Church leaders with the American Baptist Publication Society at the time came up with an idea to bring religious services to people living in large American cities by turning a railroad passenger car into a chapel on wheels, holding services inside them, Harter explains.

He created a miniature replica of the actual chapel car, where you can see a minister preaching to people who boarded the train. In adjoining living quarters of the rail car, you can see the minister’s wife cooking breakfast in a frying pan – two eggs, over easy, with sausage on the side.

With adult characters no taller than 5/8 inches, the eggs look like two dots. That detail did not escape the attention of judges in the 2016 National Model Railroad Association convention and contest in Indianapolis, who awarded Harter first place in the Scratch Built Passenger Car competition.

More than 30 buildings — including a 1950s-1960s diner with a hot rod parked in front — are part of Harter’s model train platform. One storefront looks much like his brother-in-law Daryl Maxey’s Barber Shop in Huntingburg, Indiana, with a miniature barber and customer inside. And a model of Harter’s Hardware Store — no kin connection to train set builder Harter — also has a place on the platform, made from a kit he purchased at a train show.

A replica of Harter’s father’s 1940 Ford is parked at Sonny’s Super Service, where arc welding is being utilized to repair the driver’s side front wheel.

Harter’s original train set can be seen by lowering a flap of the newer section, built in 2006. Train track runs from one to the other.

Harter and several of his grandchildren have had fun adding to the set, including a Martian stationed on a hill and a “Star Trek” ship that crashed into a mountain.

During the early days of his professional career, with a wife and young family, Harter was lucky if he could carve out an hour or two per week with his model trains.

Fast forward to today, when Greg and Marilyn Harter joke that he spends “23 hours a day” on model railroading during his retirement years.

However, Harter maintains that his No. 1 hobby is not model railroading, but spending time with his wife, Marilyn, a former Columbus elementary school teacher whom he met 55 years ago while home in Indiana on military leave from the U.S. Army Controller’s Office in Hawaii. Set up on a date by a friend who had landed a new job in Columbus, Greg and Marilyn hit it off — and were married six months later.

The Harters are bridge partners when playing cards against teams of friends, and they spend time together on the golf course. When around the house, they enjoy gardening, growing tomatoes, squash, green beans, lettuce, asparagus and Swiss chard, among other vegetables.

David Crisler of Shelbyville got to know Harter through their involvement with the Columbus Area Railroad Club. Crisler, the current club president and an Ivy Tech associate professor and department head, considers Harter a mentor in model railroading.

But while Harter brings a wealth of knowledge about trains and model building to the club, Crisler said it’s his broader life experiences that feed stimulating conversations that keep their friendship on track.