The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

In tribute: Museum head known for life-long love of trains


May 10, 2020

Courtesy photo

Phil Williams, right, in front of the 9005 locomotive with Santa and Mrs. Claus, Rick and Chickie Henderlite.

CLOVIS - To anybody who's been in Clovis a few years, the name Phil Williams means trains.

He opened the Clovis Depot Model Train Museum more than a quarter century ago. And he helped found the Clovis Model Train Society, which spearheaded the effort to move the 9005 locomotive to its current location on First Street.

But there were plenty of tracks with Williams, who died April 30 from heart complications. He lived throughout the world, never stopped learning and could always make a point without - everybody say it together - railroading the conversation.

Williams' fascination with trains began early, when Phillip Sr. gave his 3-year-old son a windup Hornby. The younger Phillip kept it the rest of his life.

The Williams family moved quite often, as the elder Phillip was a State Department officer, with assignments in Brazil, Argentina, the Bahamas, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Israel, Washington D.C., and Haiti.

The longest place he probably stayed as a child was in Roswell, where he attended New Mexico Military Institute for high school and junior college. Trips back to the family on the East Coast usually came aboard the San Francisco Chief, which passed through Clovis.

Vernah Williams, Phillip's wife of nearly 45 years, said trains came up pretty early in their first hour-long phone conversation set up by a mutual friend, such as Phillip just beginning to attend Vernah's church and Vernah's mom needing a walker to get around.

"He was very interesting," Vernah Williams said. "He was smart. I picked up right away that he was kind and thoughtful. That's been him all his life, always kind and thinking of the other person and how they're doing."

The next Sunday, Williams came to church with his four kids from his first marriage and offered to help Vernah's wife into the building.

One Sunday later, they'd had their first date and everybody in church had figured things out. They were married about a year later.

"He wanted me to take time to get to know his kids," Vernah said, "get comfortable."

The couple had two more children, and decided six was enough. The family has since grown to 16 grandkids and three great-grandchildren.

"They were always calling him a ma-ther because he knew how to do everything (a mother and father did)," she said. "He loved his kids, and he was so happy when he found out I was pregnant."

While Phillip graduated from Texas A&M with a chemistry degree, his favorite pursuits were electronics and radio. That knowledge helped him during his seven years in the Army and 26 years with the National Security Administration. He was stationed in Scotland, England and Australia during his time.

Wherever they went, a train set was built. Vernah never got a train set growing up because it wasn't viewed as a girl's toy, but she got in on the action by helping build the scenery. She helped Phillip in the same way, including a replica of the former Clovis depot that was set up in the museum.

Vernah didn't want to disclose much of her husband's work with the NSA, but noted that he did go on ships to gather intelligence throughout South America. He also spent time on the USS Liberty, but was not assigned to the crew that came under Israeli attack in the Mediterranean in 1967.

When he retired at age 55, he decided to pursue his childhood interest and move to the city he'd usually just traveled through on the train. He started up the train depot museum and it wasn't long before other train enthusiasts tracked him down.

"I'm a model railroader like Phil is, and when I heard the depot was opening I was curious," said Greg Jennings of Clovis. "I met him and became one of the founding members of the Clovis Model Train Society along with him. He was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the hobby and the projects we were trying to accomplish."

Jennings, who was previously in a model train community that met in the late 1980s at the Mounted Patrol Arena, was one of three founding members with Williams. The society had many hopes and dreams, the biggest to move the 9005 locomotive from Hillcrest Park.

"The long-term goal was to build a historic railroad (area) down there with the centerpiece being the locomotive," Jennings said. "There was some skepticism and concerns, and there were requirements placed upon us. First off, the city was not willing to pay for it to be done. But they understood the dream."

Funding was eventually found, and the locomotive was moved along Sycamore and Mabry, which becomes First Street, at the end of 2011. The 9005 has since been restored, with the original bell reacquired from Clovis schools and many original parts briefly borrowed to become props in Disney's 2013 "The Lone Ranger."

Jennings wouldn't call Williams the driving force of the society's efforts because it wouldn't be fair to other members, but he did call Williams a "great instigator" for action.

"The locomotive would still be in Hillcrest Park, the club most definitely would not have formed the way it did (without Williams)," Jennings said. "The locomotive would not be sitting there restored."

Williams sold the museum in 2016 when back issues persisted.

Williams and Jennings would frequently talk about not only trains, but other interests, and could always cover the touchy subjects of religion and politics without getting angry at each other.

"He had his opinions," said Jennings, "and he would share them, but he would never try to force his beliefs or agenda on somebody. He would try to educate you on what he was thinking it and how he was thinking it, and how he might be right. But he was always willing to listen."

The last year saw his health go south, Vernah said, with pulmonary embolisms in both lungs and a tumor discovered during a colonoscopy. He went to Lubbock for treatment on various issues, but family couldn't visit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two talked several times a day, and Vernah knew something was wrong when he didn't answer the children's phone calls. When she eventually got through to him, they had a brief conversation before he said he wasn't feeling good and had to cut the call short before signing off with, "I love you, honey."

A memorial service will be held at a date to be determined.


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