For over 20 years, he’s worked as one of Santa’s elves, creating a holiday treasure to be enjoyed by hundreds of children and families. In a four-week labor of love that required more than 500 feet of track, over 100 buildings, and countless evergreen trees and people, the magical scene took shape, glowing with Christmas cheer.
If you’re wondering whether Santa and his elves really exist, just look to Mike Gelesky.
In its twenty-second year, the Model Train Show Exhibit at Barron Arts Center in Woodbridge is a holiday tradition for many families, and is a gift from Gelesky to the community. Gelesky, who works for Middlesex County Department of Parks and Recreation, donates his time to set-up the nearly 300-square-foot exhibit. What started as a small section of a larger exhibit highlighting trains, planes and automobiles is now just trains, and as Gelesky says “it can’t get any bigger because there’s no more room!”
A lifelong model train hobbyist, Gelesky keeps coming back for the sheer pleasure of it all. “It’s my Christmas present from my wife. I get to play with my trains on this scale for two months!” he says, opening his arms wide. “You know, I joke about it, but it’s true. I get to have fun. I play.”
The fun begins each year in early-November when Gelesky visits the warehouse
where he stores the disassembled boards, track, trains, buildings, people and greenery. After carefully examining each piece, he and a team of friends start reassembling the town, adding new trains and buildings collected during the “off season.” Once the trains have been tested, additional buildings are set, and cars and people are put in place. By opening night, the train exhibit – which includes fireworks, a hockey rink, town square and the Jersey shore – is ready for its guests.
This year was a particularly challenging year for Gelesky. Because of mandatory
overtime on his township job following Hurricane Sandy, he was under a tighter time-crunch than usual. Still, he finished the entire exhibit by opening night.
The exhibit, which is free to the public and sponsored by Wegmans, JJ Elek Realty and Access Storage, is one of many annual events at Barron Arts Center, but is the highlight of the holiday season. It opened to the public at the Township’s Christmas Tree Lighting, which featured Mayor John E. McCormac, the Woodbridge High School Choir and Marching Band, and the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Over the course of the season, more than sixty schools and clubs will visit the exhibit, along with hundreds of local families. It’s a legacy of which Program Director Cynthia Knight is very proud.
“I love to see the interaction with the children when they look at the trains,” says Knight. “It’s a family tradition to go see the trains. They come with their families and you watch them grow. Some, who started coming to the train show as children, now return with families and children of their own.”
Created for children to enjoy, the exhibit includes buttons for little hands to push, activating a Ferris wheel and amusement park rides, ice skaters, and lights. Additionally, hidden within the exhibit are 20 different items for children to “seek-and-find.” The game started years ago when someone dropped an Elmo into the display and everyone started looking for Elmo.
Inspired by the idea, Gelesky has since added many other toys, including Buzz Lightyear and Andy, a shark, and cops and robbers. Gelesky’s son, too, got in on the action. Now a senior at Rutgers University, every year since he was 10 years old, he has hidden a small toy for his dad to find.
The exhibit is as much a reflection of Gelesky’s family as it is a part of Woodbridge history. Mixed in among the storefronts of local businesses and landmarks are pieces of Gelesky’s family history. A softball field for his daughter, who played at Kean University, sits adjacent to a hockey rink for his son, who currently plays for Rutgers. He also included a Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse, where his daughter, now a math teacher, waited tables
as her first job. A bright pink train circles the track honoring his wife, who beat breast cancer a few years ago. Gelesky picked it up in Point Pleasant, N.J. at a breast cancer awareness fundraiser.
While no pieces from the exhibit have ever been stolen, the event is not without its mishaps. Exhibit volunteer Neil Scheve, a retired copper manufacturer, recalled the year that a train never exited a mountain tunnel – it got caught under the mountain and melted. Scheve, who has volunteered at the exhibit for over 10 years and is relied on for his technical expertise, says his motto for the exhibit is “If you don’t see the trains for a while, you’ve got a problem!”
In honor of his father, who was a platform foreman at Baltimore Union Station, Scheve wears a conductor’s hat that he purchased in Belgium during World War II. A lifelong train collector, he loans many of his trains to the Center during the exhibit. “We count on Neil and some of the other train aficionados to help us when Mike is not here,” Knight says. “Because if that train breaks down, he knows the mechanics and can usually get it back on track.”
Knight is proud of the exhibit volunteers who, along with Gelesky, help ensure that the annual train show remains a success. “It’s a great program. It’s one of the most popular things that we have here. And it’s great to see the energy. It brings people into the arts center so then they’re aware of our other programs.”
In fact, the Barron Arts Center – originally a library and now listed on the State and National Registers of Historic places – provides numerous other programs, such as the Taste of the Arts lectures, concerts, exhibits of historical and artistic value, adult and children art education classes, and Poets Wednesdays, which is the oldest poetry group in existence in the U.S. The center also hosts various programs and exhibits in conjunction with the Woodbridge Board of Education.
It’s both wide-eyed children and adults who share his love of trains that Gelesky finds most rewarding. “I’ll get people in here at 70 years old that reminisce about their parents and Lionel trains under the trees,” Gelesky recalled. “Here’s a 70-year-old man, and you’ll start to see little tears in his eyes because he’s reminiscing.”
And when a child starts crying because he doesn’t want to leave, Gelesky offers a very special job: putting the trains to bed. After the crowds leave, the child gets the honor of pressing the one button that shuts down the entire exhibit. In the end, for Gelesky, it’s all about giving and the magic of the season.
“Christmas time is a spirit, not in the religious sense, it’s just a happy occasion. And people getting together, having families together, and that’s what this is about.”