Fred Vertel, 86: Creator of History Museum’s model-train display

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Courtesy of John Vertel
Fred Vertel created the 1930s-era train diorama for the Los Altos History Museum’s permanent exhibition.

For two decades, visitors to the Los Altos History Museum have stood over the popular 1932-era train diorama that is a central part of the museum’s permanent exhibition. They have watched the miniature trains circling the track, wondering what Los Altos life must have been like so long ago.

They have Fred Vertel to thank for the experience. The former Los Altos resident and lifelong train enthusiast came up with the idea and made it happen.

Museum representatives said Mr. Vertel, 86, who died Aug. 25, was “absolutely key” to the construction of the diorama. It has been a major attraction at the museum since its 2001 opening.

“Fred was very important to the building of the museum in terms of the permanent exhibition,” said Nan Geschke, a major museum contributor who interviewed Mr. Vertel in the 1990s for an episode of “Los Altos History Show.”

Mr. Vertel, with his son Tom, a fellow train aficionado, contributed exacting replicas of train cars from the early 1930s. Train enthusiast Bob Brown created the miniature buildings and landscapes of old Los Altos that accommodated the Vertels’ trains and track layout.

Sharing his passions

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Courtesy of the Los Altos History Museum
Mr. Vertel's diorama captures life in Los Altos circa 1932.

Born to Joseph Frank and Annetta Jane Vertel, Mr. Vertel grew up in La Grange, Ill., a suburb outside Chicago that was a central hub for steam trains crisscrossing the country. The young Vertel became enamored with trains, watching the CB&Q Railroad. They would become a lifelong passion.

The family moved to San Jose in 1943, where Mr. Vertel graduated from Bellarmine College Preparatory School and San Jose State University.

After two years in the U.S. Army in St. Louis, Mr. Vertel returned to San Jose and managed a Sherman Clay store selling Hammond organs. Although he never learned to read music, he could play the piano and organ by ear. His son John said music was actually Mr. Vertel’s No. 1 passion.

Mr. Vertel then moved to Los Altos in 1960 and met his wife, the late Louise A. Vertel, during one of the monthly Sherman Clay office parties. They married in 1963 and started a family of four children. He worked as a stockbroker for Shearson Hammill & Co. and retired in his mid-50s. His community involvement included membership in the local Kiwanis Club, where he was a past president.

Friend Liz Nyberg described Mr. Vertel’s south Los Altos backyard as a maze of big and little trains constantly in motion.
“He enjoyed hosting large picnics there for people of all ages to enjoy,” she said. “The home was full of trains from his attic to his basement, and he loved showing them all to visitors. Fred owned a three-quarters-sized steam engine, which was featured in some old-time Hollywood movies.”

John said Mr. Vertel owned model trains of all scales.

“He had one of the most renowned setups in the Bay Area,” John said.

“He had walls of trains all over the house, a G-scale outdoor garden layout, a rare O-gauge outdoor layout and an actual 1/4-scale operating switch engine on a 50-foot track – pretty spectacular,” marveled Los Altos resident and fellow train enthusiast Dick Blanding. “I asked him about an indoor O-gauge layout, and he led me down the hall, pulled the cord to open up his attic access door and lowered the ladder. The whole attic was one big O-gauge layout. He even had a single mattress and a pillow there, in case he worked too late into the night.”

Known for his upbeat, welcoming personality, Mr. Vertel invited groups of disabled children every year from the Green Pastures home in Mountain View into his backyard to enjoy his model-train wonderland.

Tragedy struck in January 2003 when Mr. Vertel’s house caught fire. He and his son Tom escaped with their lives through a bathroom window.

The blaze destroyed virtually all of the train collection he had spent the previous 40 years amassing. It had been valued at more than $1 million.

Despite the loss of his home and train collection, Mr. Vertel retained his positive spirit.

“There is good in everything,” he said at the time.

Following the loss of his Los Altos home, Mr. Vertel and son Tom relocated to Chiloquin, Ore. They became involved in Train Mountain Railroad, known as the world’s largest model railroad. There, they built an adjacent and connected railroad named Timberlake.

John described his father as creative and unique.

“He applied that creativity to a diverse number of activities and interests,” he said, including gardening, restoring old Thunderbirds and other cars, building playhouses and cooking.

“When he got into (a creative pursuit), he got into it seriously,” John said.

Still, trains remained a central theme in his life.

“He was a wonderful man, and he’ll be sorely missed,” Geschke said.

Mr. Vertel is survived by his children, John, Barbara Rose, Annamarie Harrison and Tom.  He had one brother, Joseph Andrew, 16 years his senior.

Services were held Sept. 3 in Klamath Falls, Ore. Interment followed at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Los Altos.

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