Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Volunteer Spotlight: John Geist

When I ask John Geist, a 14-year B&O volunteer originally from Lancaster, PA, if he would mind being the subject of the latest Volunteer Spotlight, I am met with same the soft-spoken humility that makes John such a pleasure to work with each week. Without much ado, John gives me permission to interview him, and we settle into what we at the B&O have come to call the Fishbowl: a small research area between our offices and the archives where John volunteers every Wednesday. John speaks gently, but not timidly, as he has in every conversation I’ve ever had with him. John isn’t a timid man, but rather one whose thoughts are carefully distilled, whose words are clear and precise, and whose temperament is mild and disarming.
John is the first to admit that he had no prior connection to the railroad; he holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh and his career was spent largely as an association executive for various human services agencies. In areas such as health, education, and child safety, John worked to help administer services and resources to the people who needed them. This is why John’s particular interest is in the human aspect of the railroad’s history. He explains that railroading was the first American industry to provide a social safety net for its employees, and furthermore, that the B&O was the very first railroad to do so with the inception of its Relief Department in the late 19th century. My discussion with John on this topic further affirms what I’ve already begun to realize in my time at the B&O: there is an aspect of the railroad’s history for everyone. The B&O Railroad represents a cross-section of society, wherein social historians like John are just as essential as those who can, say, describe in painstaking detail the mechanical ins-and-outs of a steam engine. This isn’t just about history either – John’s favorite part of volunteering at the B&O is “the camaraderie with the other volunteers and working with the staff,” and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, staff or volunteer, who would disagree. John’s words and his wisdom serve as powerful reminders of what has always made the B&O so special. From the workers who built the railroad, to the tireless volunteers like John Geist who devote their time to the careful maintenance of its legacy, the B&O has always been about people, their lives, their work, and perhaps most importantly, their stories.

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