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Woman On The Line

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Woman On The Line

  • Mary Irving has dedicated her career to preserving railroad history — and telling the stories of those who worked the rails

Whoever came up with the adage “find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” has obviously never worked a day with Mary Irving, a leading authority on Texas rail history. Over the course of her storied career as a museum director, Irving has established two of the state’s major railroad history museums, the Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum and the Lehnis Railroad Museum in Brownwood. In that time, she’s worked tirelessly to preserve not just Texas’ railroad history but the personal histories of the men and women who lived them.

But to imply Irving’s career has been in any way easy is flat-out wrong. She just makes it look that way. After all, it takes a special kind of dedication to invest a full 22 years into a museum before immediately beginning the process again in another town, not to mention the seemingly endless stream of budget cuts, regulations and deadlines she’s faced. Nevertheless, Irving has persisted. “I’m always learning— that’s how you stay young,” she says, “which is funny considering most people think of museum directors as little old ladies in tennis shoes. But those little old ladies are the ones who are there every day. They dedicate their lives to the preservation of our heritage — to building it, fixing it and protecting it.”

Dedication is no doubt admirable, but it takes more than simple tenacity to attain Irving’s level of success. After all, Irving will be the first to tell you her accomplishments weren’t achieved alone. “One thing about Mary,” says Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum archivist Craig Ordner, reflecting on Irving’s tenure there, “she was a great communicator. She accepted everybody’s opinion even when she had her own vision. The museum has never had as many volunteers as when Mary was here.”

“Mary loved history, and she loved people,” says Luke Broussard, a former volunteer at the Brownwood Museum. “She’s what made the museum human, rather than just a pile of artifacts.”

Born in Klamath Falls, Oregon, on February 20th, 1949, Irving quickly acquired her leadership skills as the oldest of five children. Ever a creative soul, her skill for crafting engaging exhibits was foretold by an adolescent love for composing art pieces, particularly paintings. After marrying Ron Irving, a statistician for the U.S. Army, and giving birth to her three children, Irving began the education that would inspire her lifelong passion. With her husband’s work frequently relocating the family, Irving had the enviable opportunity to pursue her arts degrees in the Netherlands and Italy. “I’ve always been interested in history, but getting my education in Europe — oh my gosh, I simply became enamored,” she says. “Every spare moment was spent taking as much history as possible.”

After completing her education, which included a specialization in museum science, an invigorated Irving was ready to put her skills to use. “I was going to set the art museum world on fire!” she recalls. “After we were stationed at Fort Hood [in Killeen, Texas], however, it became obvious there were no art museums.” In 1982, Irving took a job as curator of the Second Cavalry’s on-base military museum. “You take what you can get,” she says. “I hate to say it, but in the museum field you have to wait for somebody to die to get a job.”

Undeterred, Irving thrived in her position. By creating exhibits, as well as working to preserve the museum’s artifacts, Irving was brought closer to history than ever before. “While sorting through the museum’s artifacts,” she remembers, “I found a book titled The History of the Civil War by Ulysses S. Grant. I found it had been signed by Grant himself! I shouted ‘Oh my God!’ and began showing it to everyone!” Unfortunately, Irving’s employers didn’t share her enthusiasm for the find, forcing her to contact the Library of Congress to see the artifact properly taken care of. “It was a lot of extra work, but it’s a no-brainer if you care about the preservation of history,” she explains. “At that point the army didn’t consider books to be artifacts. I was constantly butting heads with the military, who knew nothing except ‘follow the regulations,’ which didn’t always make sense.”

Irving held her tongue numerous times during her stint at the military museum. Soon, however, she reached her breaking point. “We had this 17th century blunderbuss gun at the museum,” she says. “Beautiful as it was, though, it didn’t exactly fit the museum’s timeline. The military had only one regulation way of disposing of guns — cutting them up.” Unable to witness history being destroyed in such fashion, Irving again worked overtime to find the artifact a new home. “That’s why I left Fort Hood,” she says. “I got so tired of fighting regulations.”

When a position opened up in 1985 at the Temple Railroad and Pioneer Museum, Irving decided it was time to jump ship. Though it was here that Irving would begin her storied career in railroad history, Irving admits she didn’t have much prior knowledge on the subject. “What’s funny is, the only class I ever got a D in — in my entire life — was the Industrialization of America: 1865-WWI. Guess which period of history has come to represent my entire career? [Laughs] When you’re a historical researcher, it doesn’t matter what the subject is. What matters is that you know how to create exhibits and take care of artifacts.”

In addition to creating new, engaging exhibits, and properly archiving the museum’s vast collection, Irving also took steps to connect the museum with the people of Temple. “Mary was great at reaching out to the community,” Ordner says. “She inspired a lot of involvement — whether it was through the city’s annual train festival or holding special functions to generate revenue. She also had a pretty good rapport with the retired railroaders.”

In 1999, after 14 years of maintaining the Temple museum, Irving would take on her largest project yet. The Santa Fe Railway Company had recently abandoned a large depot in downtown Temple, leaving the fate of the historic building uncertain. “The building was fixing to be razed — we needed to protect our people’s memories,” says retired Amtrak employee Dan Stephens, who, like many other Temple citizens, hailed from a long line of rail workers. “To me, that building represents the heart and soul of this city. That building has been through four wars — it was the last thing some of the service men and women saw of their hometown.”

Stephens reached out to Irving, who felt the abandoned depot was the perfect spot to expand the museum, which had acquired more artifacts than the current location could handle. Though their intentions were noble, their task wouldn’t be easy. “The first time I asked the city manager about acquiring the depot for the museum, he laughed!” Irving says. “We were in competition with the firemen and the policemen for that money, along with every judge who wanted his courthouse restored.

“It was a tough time.” Stephens remembers. “Mary stayed with it, though. It was a chase, but she finally pinned down the sellers and put a price tag on the station.” With this target in sight, Irving worked with a grant writer hired by the city and was able to secure the funds necessary to begin restoration on the depot.

But as difficult as saving the depot was, the restoration process presented Irving with numerous opportunities for historical exploration. “A retired railroader named Robert Pounds said he could show us the wall where the rail company had stored the drawings for their past projects,” Irving says. “The railroad was always being sued. They decided their documents couldn’t be subpoenaed if they destroyed ’em. Well, in this case, there wasn’t enough time to destroy ’em properly. Santa Fe did everything in house, and the workers weren’t always the most qualified. [Laughs] When we got the building, Robert and I tore down the wall. And what did we find? Thousands and thousands of these old historical documents that had been sealed away — by far, one of the most exciting things to happen during restoration.”

The contributions of retired railmen like Pounds had proved invaluable during Irving’s time with the museum, even before the new location was secured. “My interest has never been so much in things,” Irving says. “I’m more interested in the people, and I really loved those old men. I felt somebody needed to tell their story.” With this new location, Irving created a space that paid tribute to the human side of rail history. “Upstairs, you’ll find in the museum exhibits stories about the different railroaders and what the jobs were.”

While Irving had made many friends during her time at the Temple museum, it’d be the generosity of a former railman named Martin Lehnis that would influence the next phase of her career. Throughout his 50 years with the Santa Fe Railway, Lehnis had accumulated a large collection of railroad artifacts and memorabilia, which he’d left to the city of Brownwood after passing in 2005. Having become acquainted with Lehnis back in Temple, Irving seemed the obvious choice to archive the collection.

For two years, Irving worked in Brownwood to archive Lehnis’ belongings, which were housed in a dedicated warehouse. “There was just so much to sort through,” recounts Irving’s daughter, Kathleen, who accompanied her mother on those trips to Brownwood. “Plus, it wasn’t organized. You’d find grocery receipts mixed in with the Santa Fe Railway china. Luckily, my mother thrives on challenge.” If the sheer magnitude of Lehnis’ collection wasn’t enough to test Irving’s dedication, many of her workdays took place during summer’s peak, where 100-degree temperatures effectively transformed the warehouse into an oven. “Oh my, I thought we’d die,” Irving says. “It was so darn hot, we’d have to step back outside into the Texas heat just to cool down. Eventually I realized I could bring my pop up camper into the warehouse. At least that had air conditioning for the summer nights.”

Having put in her due diligence to catalog the collection, it wasn’t a surprise when the city offered Irving the opportunity to create a new museum — from the ground up. “We knew she had a lot of expertise from Temple,” says Brownwood parks department director David Withers, who’d become Irving’s boss. “She had the depth of experience the city was looking for.”

With this new opportunity on the horizon, Irving felt that, after 22 years, it was time to close her work in Temple. “It was a new challenge,” she explains. “In Temple, we’d created a museum that was doing well — people were visiting, exhibits were built — and here I had the opportunity to do it all again. I was thrilled to death.”

Thrilled or not, putting together what would become the Lehnis Railroad Museum was a daunting task. Unlike in Temple, Irving was truly starting at square one. “When I arrived at the museum building, it was totally empty,” she says. “There wasn’t even a pencil.” Thankfully, much like in Temple, Irving wasn’t alone. The prospect of a new rail museum had attracted a close-knit group of volunteers to Lehnis, and not a moment too soon. “She was employed on July 2007, only about six weeks before the museum opened,” says Frank Hilton, one of Irving’s most loyal volunteers. “So you can imagine how busy she was.”

Working at a breakneck pace, Irving and her crack team built the museum from scratch, assembling Martin Lewis’ collections of model trains, building exhibit stands and sewing table covers. “Irving was good about getting us all involved,” says Hilton. “How Mary organizes volunteers — it’s an art form, believe me.” With her ability to play to each of her volunteers’ strengths, Irving made her three workers feel like 100. “I think the whole key is respecting what people have learned in life,” Hilton adds. “Take Frank, a former employee with the Boy Scouts of America. He was a natural for building the scenery of the model train layouts. You really have to respect these life skills — before using the hell out of them. [Laughs]” The Martin and Frances Lehnis Railroad Museum officially opened its doors on Sept. 14, 2007, just in time for the Brownwood City Railroad Festival.

Having met their deadline, Irving and her family of volunteers continued to work day in and day out to bring the museum to its full potential. In that time they added more model railroad sets, artifacts, exhibits and even a fully functional 7 ½-gauge outdoor miniature railroad outside for guests to ride.

Considering how much she’s invested into both her museums, it’d make sense that Irving would vividly remember the day she retired. “Two weeks before, I looked at everything,” she remembers. “We’d spent a year building the railroad outside, we’d built all the exhibits inside, we’d d restored every piece of equipment — we’d done all of that. And almost like God did that day, I said ‘It is good. It is done.’ The next day I said to my boss, ‘David, I think it’s time. I’ve done everything I said I’d do.’”

Though Brownwood lost one of its brightest stars, the impact Irving had on the city remains in what she left behind. “I think a lot of Mary,” Wethers says. “This all couldn’t have been done if it wasn’t for her. I think that the Lehnis family was very pleased with how she took care of the collection.”

So on Jan. 11, 2011 — 1/11/11 — Mary Irving retired. “I knew I’d remember that date” Irving says.

Today, at 70 years of age, Irving is still adjusting to retirement. True to her nature, she keeps busy, both as a volunteer in the prenatal unit of the local hospital, and as the president of her cross-stitching club. No longer working in a museum capacity, she still finds herself returning to the train yards every so often. “I guess I began to like it, watching the trains go through, and the signals they send,” she says. “I’ll take pictures sometimes. I intend to send some to the Temple museum. I know Craig Ordner would take good care of them.”

With both the Temple and Brownwood museums thriving today, Irving has never once gotten a big head about her accomplishments. Even though her work has earned her numerous awards, including the coveted John L. Nau III award of Excellence in Museums — the highest honor a museum professional can attain — Irving still has trouble wrapping her head around such accolades. “When my friend explained to me the weight of [the John L. Nau III] award, it was mind-boggling,” Irving says. “I mean, this whole time I was just doing my job. I was trying preserve Texas history — for the sake of the railroad men and women who lived it. I think, in that regard, I was able to make a difference. That’s what I’m proud of.”

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