John "Big John" Glaze

Duration: 44mins:20secs
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Uncorrected Transcript

Interview with: John Glaze
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: April 15, 2008



DG:We are here at Hermann Park talking with John Glaze for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. John, how are you today?

JG: I am doing good.

DG:John, let's start with the present though when I asked you to test your microphone, you gave away what you do for a living. Would you do it again for me right now?

JG: Yes. All aboard the air-conditioned Hermann Park train, now departing for a ride through beautiful Hermann Park. Train now loading.

DG:That is terrific. Let's go back to the beginning. Where were you born?

JG: In Kansas City, Missouri.

DG:How long ago was that?

JG: In 1940.

DG:Tell me the story - how did you get from Kansas City, Missouri to Houston?

JG: Well, in Kansas City, I helped a man run a miniature train for 20 years in Kansas City and then he closed and the man here from Houston came there and hired me to come to Houston.

DG:What were your earliest memories - how did you get involved with trains?

JG: Oh, I think when I was about 8 years old in Dallas, Texas, I went to the State Fair and they had a miniature train and I just loved it. I got started there, I could say. Then, later on, as I got older, I went into model building trains and I have a very large layout at home now with nothing but trains and walls covered with them.

DG:Did you ever actually work on a train as an adult?

JG: No. Well, I did . . . I worked for the Missouri Pacific one day after I got out of high school and the building that I was in, I looked up just in time to see a box car coming through the end of the building, so I gave up railroading that day.

DG:I understand. So, you went to school in Kansas City, Missouri?

JG: Yes, I did.

DG:Just take me through the chronology. Where did you go to school, high school and what do you do when you graduated?

JG: Well, I graduated from Central High School and I was working at Swope Park running the miniature trains. I always enjoyed it. And right now, I've got almost 59 years of nothing but miniature train experience.

DG:That is great. What was it that you were doing that made the guy come from Houston and who was it that came through Houston?

JG: Mr. Lewis Slusky. He was the owner of Playland Park. He came to Kansas City visiting some of his relatives and he heard about me so he came out to the park and he told me, he said, "I will give you $1,000 if you will just come down and take a look and see if you want to take care of my trains." So, I came down and I fell in love with it.

DG:Now, why do you suppose that he heard of you? Was it the fact that you had been there so long?

JG: Yes, and I had helped other people get their trains started in Wichita, Kansas and in Topeka, Kansas.

DG:What does it take to run a good miniature train? Was it an investment on your part?

JG: Well, no, other than just my time. My employer made quite an investment. In fact, here in Houston, when he was first starting back in 1957, everybody told him he was nuts, that he would just lose everything and it was not worth it, but he went ahead and plunged in and lasted for 50 years.

DG:Now, where was that first train in Houston?

JG: Right here in Hermann Park.

DG:And how long ago was that?

JG: That was in 1957.

DG:Tell me about Houston in 1957 when you first started working out here.

JG: Well now, wait a minute - I didn't start here until actually in 1969. January 1, 1969. The first day I was running the train in Hermann Park, I came to Miller Theater Crossing and there was a naked woman and man hanging in a tree in front of the train. I could not proceed. So, they helped them get down out of the tree and then I moved on with the train.

DG:Do you think that was for your benefit?

JG: Well, back then, we had a bad drug culture in Hermann Park and it was kind of a little bit tough out here. In fact, the first year I was here, I was involved in 3 different knifing incidents. And luckily, nobody stuck me.

DG:Tell me about the move to Houston. When did you move to Houston?

JG: In 1969. Actually, the end of 1968. On January 1, I started working here.

DG:Now, I want to get the chronology right. What year did the gentleman come to you in Kansas City and offer you the $1,000 to come down?

JG: At the end of 1968.

DG:I see. So, you came down and what did you see?

JG: Well, he put me up in a nice hotel out on Main Street and I came down here and he had a lot of equipment but it was needing maintenance terrible. So, I got started taking care of the engines and getting things painted up so they looked like trains again, and business really boomed that first year I was here. He gave me a very large bonus at the end of the year for that first year. He was always good to me and I tried to give me 150% all the time.

DG: How did you learn how to fix the trains?

JG: Well, I kind of used to work on automobiles all the time and really there wasn't that much difference. These had 4 cylinder engines and they were a little bit simpler than a regular old Ford motor.

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DG:I see. So, now you are in Houston. Where did you live when you first came down?

JG: I lived at 5406 San Jacinto beside the Warwick Hotel.

DG:I see. Well, this is an area that has undergone quite a bit of change.

JG: Oh, yes.

DG:Tell us what it was like when you first got here.

JG: Well, we had so many open roads in the park and we had people on Sunday, they would park - everywhere you could find a place to park a car, they would put it. And it was a very crowded park with traffic and everything. It was a very pretty park. It had a lot of rough places in it. And now that I look back and see all the new additions that have been made, it should have been done 50 years ago. And the thing that always got me about Hermann Park is it seemed like back then in the Parks & Recreation, it was just another park. There wasn't anything extra done for it or it didn't have the maintenance that it should have had. And through the years, it just deteriorated something terrible. People would come to me and say, "How come you don't clean up the park?" which was a little impossible for me to do by myself. But eventually, a new administration got on the ball and started taking care of the park. And then, in later years, the Friends of Hermann Park put a great deal of investment and care in the park and taking care of it.

DG:Did anybody ever explain to you why the park had been neglected for so long?

JG: No, they did not. The thing that got me - I knew a lot of the park crew and a lot of days, they weren't working in Hermann Park. They were out on Main Street taking care of the esplanades and things like that. And while they are doing that, people were very trashy back then. They would just eat a box of popcorn and throw it down or drink a can of Coke, get half through and throw it at the train. There were all kinds of little things that went on.

DG:Now, a lot of people think of this as part of the zoo because you are so close to the zoo.

JG: Yes.

DG:Do you remember much about the zoo when you first came here?

JG: Well, I remember the first Halloween here in 1969, me and Mr. Worler, he was the zoo director, he came over to the train station, we stayed at night because we did not want any vandalism. While we are standing there, he gets a call - somebody is in the zoo trying to paint the elephant pink. And so, I went with him and it was a bunch of college kids that had nothing else to do and they were trying to paint the elephant. And, of course, he had them taken care of and they didn't get the job done painting the elephant.

DG:Now, you did that security job yourselves?

JG: Yes.

DG:I assume nowadays, you might hire security?

JG: Oh, yes. The things I used to do back then, I'd never do now! And, of course, like I said, it used to be a lot meaner park and through the years, it has gotten much better. We don't have the violence and crime we had back then.

DG:Why is that, do you think?

JG: Well, I think people kind of got educated that if they come to the park and raise hell, the park police are going to be after them, and word got around that this wasn't the place to be a nut. So, the park police cleaned it up real good.

DG:Now, was that a decision of anybody in particular to start enforcing the law here that you can remember?

JG: Well, back then, the park patrol was just getting organized and they bought Captain Tom Sawyer from HPD. He came over and started the park patrol. Then in later years, they got certified and they became park police. And then later on, they joined HPD. And we still have a few of the old officers that come out here every once in a while on special assignments but it is very peaceful in the park. I remember one Sunday, we had 33 cars stolen out of the front parking lot of the train area. One Sunday. And then, they put the enforcement in here and they brought that to a halt.

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DG:What else do you remember about that first year or those early years here at the park?

JG: Well, I always thought it was nice out on the mall, around the Mecom Fountain and all the flower beds and everything had big lights that shone up into the trees. And I always thought that was so unique. And to see the Mecom Fountain was really something. And, of course, we still have the Mecom Fountain today and it is just as beautiful as ever.

DG:Tell me again the story about your first day and you had some people hanging from a tree.

JG: Yes. I was coming towards the Miller Theater Crossing and there used to be a big tree there and they called it the hangman's tree because of the way the branches were formed. And there was a naked guy and a gal, naked, hanging in the tree right in front of the train. I had to stop the train or I would have hit them.

DG:What was the reaction of the moms and the kids on the train?

JG: Well, of course, some of the women, when I got back, they got very upset that I didn't try to do something to cover them up, and it was really out of my position to do something like that. But, I mean, it was just one of those things. They were both drugged out on their head and they didn't know what they were doing. And another thing that happened about that same time - a man, we used to call him Jesus Christ because he was always dressed like Jesus was - he climbed the top of Miller Theater one Sunday afternoon and he committed suicide. He said, "I am God," and he stepped off the top of Miller Theater. There must have been hundreds of people in the park. The hill was just covered with people. And I was coming with the train and I happened to be looking over that way and I said, "to the right, we have Miller Theater," and I saw him when he stepped off but it took a second for me to realize that man had just killed himself jumping off the theater. It was just an unfortunate thing to happen. And there were officers here in the park. In fact, one of them tried to get him to come down off the theater and he wouldn't do it.
But there were a lot of good things that happened in this park, too. One thing I enjoyed, the first year I was here even - so many moms bring their kids to the hospital and to the doctors and they used to bring them over to the park to ride the train to pacify them. I always enjoyed having the kids. And I made friends with a few of them. One of them was very special. He had cancer. And they thought they had it under control and everything. And then, I noticed he used to come at least maybe 3 times a week and then all of a sudden, I noticed he wasn't coming. And then his mother came and told me that he did not make it. And I remember back then, I would walk out of the park at night and I do remember I was crying all the way out of this park. But there have been so many other times - special kids with special needs, and I have always tried to make them on the train. One time, I had a class of blind children come by in front of the train station and the lady came over and started talking to me. So, anyhow, she wanted the kids to see what I looked like by feeling my uniform and everything, that I was the engineer. And that was very gratifying. I mean, the kids are so happy. They felt my big engineer's hat I had back then and you could tell they had a little bit . . . we added a little more joy to their lives that day. And, of course, the train ride, they just loved the train ride. They saw in their own way. That was always something I always remembered about the blind children when they would come.

DG:As much as you can, take us through that chronology from when you first came to the present. You talked about the Friends of Hermann Park and some of the improvements. Do you remember improvements to the zoo, the improvements to the park, the significant changes and when they happened?

JG: Yes, back in the early 1980s, they changed . . . there used to be a road in front of the zoo. They closed it and then extended the zoo out across where the road was. They built the new zoo administration building and everything. Made it much better. Of course, then when they did that, they were closer to the train. The zoo director and I used to argue about if people were coming to the zoo or were they coming to ride the train and then going to the zoo. And we used to joke about that quite a bit.

cue point

DG:Well, for the record, when I came here with my boy, we always came to ride the train and then went to the zoo.

JG: Yes. And that is usually the way it was, really.

DG:That's great. O.K., so there was the extension of the zoo. What other significant improvements were made in the area?

JG: Well, at that time, the new park administration was starting to really clean the park up and make it attractive again. Now, they did not do a lot of what I would call anything extra at that time. When everything really took off and got organized with the Friends of Hermann Park, then the park really improved. And, of course, through the years, they have upgraded the Miller Theater. One time, they were tearing the old floor out of the Miller Theater and I went over and talked to them and I ended up building the side of the building on the side of the shop to store trains. There have just been marvelous improvements. Out in the front, we used to have a pool that was concrete and then one year, they came along and they took all the concrete out. It looked like a big cow pond. And then, after the Friends of Hermann Park took over, they transformed it into a glorious pond.

DG:For people who have never been to the park, never ridden the train, tell us about the train. Where does it go? It is on a new route now?

JG: Yes.

DG:So, what was the old route? Where would it go?

JG: Well, the old route used to come over and go down the left-hand side of Miller Theater across the mall and out to the children's playground area. It was a big circle. And then it circled back and went across the bridge, the lake, and then returned to the station. It took you about maybe a 12 minute ride or so. It depended on the operator if it was a fast one or if you got 12 minutes. And we always tried to operate it where it would be a safety thing. Because there were so many kids in the park, you have to be on the ball all the time, that you don't hurt somebody.

DG:Well, tell me about the new route now.

JG: All right. The new route is really kind of temporary. Next year, we will go down and we will go back almost to where the original station was but there will be a great big new station called Kinder Station. And we will come out of Kinder Station and turn to the right and go across the road, go across Miller Theater Road, where we have automatic crossing signals now. And then, up around in front of Miller Theater and near the Museum of Natural Science, there is going to be a new train station, the M.D. Anderson Station. You will be able to get off of the train at that station and go to the Museum and then return to the train and continue your journey. You will go across the Molly Smith Plaza, see the Sam Houston Monument, you will go down and there will be a new Metro station at Sunset Boulevard. You will be able to get off the train there and go across and get on the Metro. And from that station, we go to the next Metro station down on MacGregor and it will be the same way - you can get on the Metro and go to town and come back if we still operate, and it will be a much longer ride than the other one. I do not know for sure but I think it is going to be closer, maybe 2-1/2 miles to 3 miles when it is finished. At the MacGregor station, there is going to be a new shop area and a new tunnel. When you ride the train, you will come through the tunnel. The tunnel is a very big thing because I had some children Sunday that were disappointed when they rode the train because we did not have a tunnel. So, we are going to build them a big new one.

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DG:Great. How long is the current route?

JG: I estimate it at about close to 2 miles.

DG:O.K., so it will be almost ________?

JG: Yes. And, of course, the mileage will change when they go on down the road and come back the other way here in the main station area.

DG:So, what is your particular role now, today, with the train?

JG: Well, I am the chief engineer, I would guess you would say, and I ride the train and give a tour and I tell everybody where we are going and where we have been. I am a little past retirement age. I was thinking about retiring back in March but I have changed my mind. I like it. I enjoy getting up every morning and coming to the park. And every day is a new day when you come to the park. You meet new people, make new friends, and that is very important.

DG:Houston is a city that has seen a lot of change.

JG: Yes.

DG:From your viewpoint here, your one small area of the park, what have you seen in terms of the people who come to the park, the people who ride the train, the people who come here to live and to visit?

JG: Well, I mean, judging by when I first started here, this is a whole new crowd, a whole new bunch, and it is just nice to be able to give them a ride and not have any aggravation. I think the kids are much better today than back then. We don't have so much meanness as we used to have. In the old days, we would be going through a school group and they would start throwing stuff at people on the train. And we don't have things like that anymore. Now, we still have the old problem with some kids like that get away from the teacher and run in front of the train which is kind of a big problem but most of the time, we have very little trouble with anything. And we can roll along the track without having to worry about something being thrown in front of us to run over and derail the train.

DG:How often did that happen in the past?

JG: Well, in the old days, it eventually, in the late 1970s, it got to be quite a problem. I remember one Sunday, we had 4 derailments. And what happened with most of them that day, the kids would be holding a big rock or something and, of course, the engineer was living at the track and he did not see anything but as soon as the engine got close enough to them, they would drop something. And, a lot of times, it would derail the train. Now, we never heard anybody that way. Usually the engines took the blunt of the derailment. We did have an incident on my birthday about 1995 out here. Some kids picked up some big cinder blocks from Miller Theater when they were redoing something over there, they carried them over here and one kid just as the train was getting ready to go across the road, the kid dropped the brick right there and it derailed the train. The front engine turned over, the back engine where the engineer was sitting, it didn't turn over but it piled on top of that one. And luckily, nobody was hurt. There were 86 kids on the train that day and none of them were hurt. The cars were designed in case of sudden impact, the couplers would take the blunt, and I believe that is what saved anybody from getting hurt. Of course, the engineer was a little shook up and the fact is, he is out there running the train now.

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DG:You talked about kids and their moms. Have you had anybody famous ride the train that you can speak of?

JG: Oh, yes. Rebecca de Mornay. Now, she was a movie star that was here. And we did do a movie. We did a movie with her and used the train. I remember there used to be a newscaster, Sylvan Rodriguez, and he always would bring kids to ride the train. Now, I can't remember right now but I think he used to come about once a week with a special child and ride the train. And after Sylvan passed away, we really did not have anybody that was bringing the special kids at that time. Now, I remember when Bill Balleza used to come with his child and ride the train all the time. And, of course, the child has gotten older now and we have not seen the child in a while. Dave Ward was a railroad buff. I remember he was out here when they were moving old 982 and he was helping them move it and they were pulling on a big rope and the rope broke and Dave Ward went down. But he put his muscle into moving that train. I remember one time Hugh Downs was in town and they were doing a special show. When I first came to work here, I was so pleased because I knew these people from Kansas City. They were in the opera there - James McCraken and Sandra Warfield. I was so thrilled when they came to ride my train. Of course, we talked about old days and everything. But it has been interesting. And it is hard to just, right off my mind, remember . . . Ryan O'Neal and Tatum O'Neal, they were here. Now, Tatum was doing a film in the park but she would come and ride the train every time she would get a chance. And the fact is, if we would see her out there, we would just stop and pick her up. There was always somebody coming.

DG:You know, in this time now with all the video games and the TV and the movies and stuff, it is nice to know that there is a place where kids can still come. So, what do you think is going to be your place in Houston in the future?

JG: Well, I think this park will just grow leaps and bounds. Now, one thing that hurts us in this park right now is our parking area. We don't have a lot of parking anymore and that is something that needs to be addressed. That will make a big difference in park attendance. Another thing they are doing, they are putting out picnic tablets and barbecue pits. Now, we had a period there for a long time when there would be no barbecue pits, no picnic tables, and what I found out about some of that - they were picking it up from this park and moving it to another park to be used. One year, they came and got all the children's playground equipment and moved it. And eventually, they brought it back. Now, we used to have a big fire truck out there and the kids just loved that fire truck. Well, they came and got it and that was the end of that. And we had a big model of a space ship out there and the kids would climb all over that thing. I guess it became a liability issue and that is the reason they moved it away. But with the conservative . . . putting more tables and everything in a park, I have seen a big increase in the children's playground area, where there has been a big increase in people starting to have picnics again. And out on the Molly Smith Plaza now, Sunday, I was noticing there were 3 blankets out on the grass and they were having a picnic. And that is what I like to see. I like to see people come and enjoy the park, more than just ride the train. I remember one day, I was watching a guy, he was building a fire in one of the pits and he was teaching his son how to do it. I thought that was very interesting. And I think with the tables and chairs and everything that are coming back in the park, there will be a big difference.

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DG:When we were assembling the names for this project, your name was suggested to us and they called you "Big John Glaze." Where did the "Big" come from?

JG: Well, the Friends of Hermann Park started that. I don't really know what the intent was but everybody . . . the fact is, when they made me a new name pin, she asked, "Why didn't they put Big John on it?" So, I really don't know where I picked up that moniker.

DG:Before we wrap up, you mentioned something about Mr. Slusky that hired you. What was the name of the park?

JG: Playland Park.

DG:Can you share any of those . . .

JG: Well, yes. It was an amusement park out on Main Street and it was a big attraction out on Main Street. It was just catercorner from where the Dome was built. And, of course, after he closed Playland Park, I believe it was in 1967 but I am not sure, then that is when Astroworld took over. He had a big roller coaster and the thing I remember about the roller coaster, he was telling me . . . he used to walk it every day. Walk the top of the roller coaster and back and forth. One day, an insurance man was there to see him and he went to the office and the secretary told him where Lewis was. He walked outside and saw Lewis walking the roller coaster. They never saw him again. He had quite a big . . . he even had private housing out there for his employees that stayed at the park. And he made a deal with Rapid Transit Company to pay a subsidiary so the bus would run out there. When he first started, the bus didn't go that far on Main Street. And then, of course, after he opened that, there was a big dance hall that opened and Sunny Looks and Copans and all the big restaurants went that way. He built a racetrack and they had races out there all the time. And A.J. Foyt, whenever he would come to the park, he was not allowed to ride the bump em cars unless they had the release signed. But later on when he got out on the dirt track, he became famous.

DG:Why do you think the train has stayed so popular all these years?

JG: Well, it is a form of entertainment. There are so many kids, not so much today but in the old days, they used to sit and watch trains go by and they became fascinated with them. I think that is what attracts them and keeps them to the trains. There are several large hobby shops here in Houston that have a large following of railroad buffs. There was just something about a train. It meant that you didn't have to stay where you were at, you could get up and move. And, of course, they like to move around the park now.

DG:We started the interview with an "all aboard." When the train pulls into the station, what would you hear?

JG: O.K., when the train is pulling in, I say, "We are now entering the Bayou City Station on track 1. Please remain seated until the train stops. Thank you for riding the air-conditioned Hermann Park train." Then I stop.

DG:John, is there anything else you would like to add for people . . . is there anything they should know about you and about the train here and about the park?

JG: Oh, one thing about this park - through the years, there has been pressure on it - people want to build apartment complexes and things and they have kind of put pressure on the city, I would say. And even the Medical Center at one time wanted to expand. And the zoo was going to move to another location because the Medical Center wanted part of it. But somebody stood fast and they kept this park. It is a big attraction to Houston. Now, when I went on vacation to New York this year, I deliberately went to Central Park and oh, those people had vision when they saved that big dream space with all those buildings. It is really something. And another thing - I want people to enjoy the 21st century in Hermann Park.

DG:O.K. John, do you have kids of your own?

JG: Yes, I have a boy and a girl. They are both older now and married. And I have grandchildren.

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DG:Do they bring their kids to ride the train?

JG: Oh, yes. And, of course, now, one of us moved to New York and I just see her whenever we got visit or they come down here. The boys still . . . every once in a while, one of them will just show up out here to see what John is doing.

DG:It's got to be pretty cool knowing the guy who runs the train!

JG: Yes, and when my daughter's girls were here out at the Living Stones Church, whenever that organization would come to ride the train, afterwards, they would always send me big thank you letters, drawings that the children had made and I've got a ton of that stuff at home, of remembrances. One of them said, "Thank you, Mr. John, for letting us ride the train."

DG:John, what is your favorite memory? Looking back on all these years, what is your favorite memory?

JG: Well, it has really been good for me because the train that I was taking care of, that I had taken care of since 1969, I considered it obsolete and I was always scared about the safety. Sometimes you would put the brake handle on and nothing would happen, you would have to turn the motors off. And the last couple of years, I was mainly the one that had to look at every wheel, every brake shoe, keep everything in shape, and really, the last year we operated that train, I was a very nervous man all the time because you just have to maintain it, you have to stay with it. And it was getting so old that just sitting still, something would break on it. It is called metal fatigue. I was so glad though when that train . . . it was 50 technology. Now, we've got 21st century technology and this train will do anything. The thing I like about it - it is a much safer ride. When I go out there and run that thing, if I want to stop it, I can stop it. And the other one just got to where you'd put the brakes on and you'd always get some air leak or something. The copper tubing was starting to deteriorate. It had been on there 50 years. It was starting to deteriorate. And I was always worried about that.

DG:How many times do you think you have been around this park?

JG: Oh, I have no idea. And I think about the millions of people that I have hauled on this train. Now, I remember one year, I hauled 863,000 people that one year. And to give them a ride that is enjoyable and safe, that has always been pretty good for me. I liked it.