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Westfield retiree never missed a day of railroad work

March 24, 2016
By Pam Kirst ( , Westfield Republican

Al went through a lot of steel-toed boots, Linda says, during his years with the railroad.

He was only 22 when the railroad took him on as a laborer. They must have been glad to get him: a big strong kid, a hard worker. Young as he was, a family man. Albert Keppel and the former Linda Schmatz - she was such a pretty girl: red-haired, bright, and lively - got married in 1972, the year he graduated from high school. Their daughter Tracy was born in March 1973; Linda picked up her high school diploma that June.

They lived in Dunkirk, their hometown. Scott, their son, arrived in October of 1975. The next year, Al laced up those steel-toed boots and joined the railroad.

Article Photos

Submitted Photo
These were the last pair of steel-toed boots worn by retired railroad worker and Dunkirk native Al Keppel. His wife, Linda, did not throw them away as Al requested. They are now a planter at their Westfield home.

They hired him as a laborer; he'd barely worn out his first pair of boots before they made him a welder. The railroad moved Al and the family to Geneva, Ohio in 1978. He broke in another pair or two of boots before the railroad made him a foreman.

Linda turned her gift for nurturing into a vocation; she provided daycare for other families' children in her home. She was good at it, and popular, and, in 1986, she and Al became the proud owners of We Care Day Care. Linda ran the business for seven and a half years; Al traveled for the railroad most of that time. His boots touched down in a lot of different places, a lot of different states. He rode from Boston to Chicago to Miami - and to a lot of less well-known places in between.

The railroad made him a supervisor. He went through a lot more pairs of boots.

He worked a lot of 16-hour days. He took good care of the gang he supervised; they knew they could count on Al having a bagful of roasted shelled nuts for them and a cooler full of snacks.

Al talks about watching Amish children playing in green fields as the train sped by; he remembers street-corner entrepreneurs hawking their wares. He ate at a lot of mom and pop diners and restaurants.

He had a lot of rich and interesting conversations with strangers; he met a lot of strangers who became his friends. He remembers those he worked with, the people who worked for him, with a great deal of fondness.

The railroad made him a manager.

Kids grow; boots wear out; careers careen in unexpected directions. In 1999, the railroads merged and CSX sent Al and Linda, empty-nesters now, to Scherville, Indiana.

They stayed there for two and a half years long enough, just about, to wear out another pair of boots. Al bid out in 2003, and, writes Linda, "We say we've come full circle." They moved back home to Westfield. Their hometown, where they graduated from high school, is about 15 miles away.

When Al retired, he took off his steel-toed boots for the last time, and he told Linda to throw them away. He went out and got himself some comfortable gym shoes and he started wearing those. He even, recently, bought himself a pair of walking shoes, and when the Western New York snows melt this spring, maybe he and Linda will go walking on some of the local woodland trails or explore some of the tree-lined streets.

But Linda couldn't bear to throw the boots away. There has to be something, she mused to herself, some way to use them. And she - gifted with taste, and an unerring eye - she found just the thing. When Al retired, those boots held a place of honor, filled with flowers: a steel-toed tribute.

How do you show the measure of a man? Maybe using boots that symbolize his dedication is not such a bad way. During his years with the railroad, Al and Linda raised a family, moved that family, and worked hard for their family. Al grew into management. He grew into manhood. You know the times weren't always easy, but Al and Linda were not the ones to give up, to wish for the easy way out. The boots wear out, you get a new pair. You lace them up and you get out there and you work.

It's what Al did, Linda says, every day of his life with the railroad. He laced up his boots, he showed up, he did more than a day's work, and he did it unfailingly well. And he did it healthy, and he did it sick, and he did it even when he really didn't want to leave his family and his warm home. All those years, says Linda, and never, not even once, did Al miss a day of work.



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