Article From the Spring 2001 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation


Our star volunteer this issue doesnít really need a spotlight, as he radiates enough energy and wit to rival anything we can provide. We think youíd like to get to know this active participant in both NYMT and RGVRRM: Donovan Shilling.

Donís background is in education, and considering that we are chartered as an educational institution, his experience and training are appropriate and valuable. A local guy, Don was born in Fairport, NY in 1933, and earned masters degrees in Educational Administration and Science Education from Brockport State (now SUNY Brockport). He started out right in our backyard, teaching 4th and 6th grades in Rush-Henrietta. Moving to Brighton, he taught Junior High School science and later began exercising his administration degree, moving up the ranks to Vice Principal and Principal of the Elementary and Middle Schools at French Road School.

Don and Yolanda met in college and both graduated in 1954. Near the end of Donís subsequent two years in military service at Fort Lee, Virginia, they were married and settled down. They have a son, Mark, and a daughter, Amanda, and there are now five in the next generation to keep the grandparents hopping.

Donís many interests cover a wide spectrum. Over the years he has belonged to educational, social and historic groups. The historic area seems to be of particular interest with him, as he has taught numerous local history classes and led historic walks for over 20 years with the Gannett School of the Rochester Museum and Science Center on East Avenue. Don soaks up tidbits of local history like no one weíve ever seen, and files everything away in a well-organized system. In a vast collection of folders and notebooks, heís retained tickets, brochures, photos, and assorted ephemera covering everything from downtown businesses to lakeside amusement parks.

Don has a special skill, honed by years in teaching, for bringing to life these moldering relics, the people and the era from which they came. Most people would look at a souvenir program of a band concert at Genesee Valley Park 100 years ago and see a list of Sousa marches.
         Don and Yolanda Shilling support both NYMT and RGVRRM

But Don smells a fresh summer breeze wafting through the crowd, sees the glint of the sunís reflection off the bass tuba, and tastes the bratwurst sausages sizzling on the grill over at the food stands. His lively imagination has brought history and nostalgia to life for his audiences, in scores of presentations made over the years to local groups, and in his many days at the museum hosting visitors. Especially popular on the lecture circuit is Donís "Memories from the Time Capsule", in which he brings out artifacts from the past to spark nostalgic memories in his audience.

Some time back, our museum received a call from a lady in New Orleans who was doing family tree research. She had seen a restaurant her family owned years ago, in a photo attributed to us in a book. We mentioned the restaurant to Don, andÖbam!Öout came a menu(!) from the place. Don graciously let us make a color copy of the menu, and the lady was delighted.

Of particular note are Donís HO scale miniature modules, carefully hand crafted dioramas which replicate scenes from a bygone time. These richly detailed little models place trains, steamboats, carousels, and other familiar icons in realistic settings that tell a story. Someday we hope to figure out how to safely exhibit these beautiful and fascinating miniatures for our visitors. For now, those of us who serve on the joint committee that coordinates activities between the two museums are lucky to see Donís miniatures, as we hold our meetings each month in Yolandaís kitchen!

Don also shares his love of local history in books. He has contributed to "100 Years of Rochester Engineering" and authored several books such as "Rochesterís Lakeside Resorts and Amusement Parks". This book, Donís latest, reveals in rare pictures those wonderful bygone days when the popularity of the resorts on Rochesterís lake and bay shores earned them the title "Coney Island of the West".

As a member of the New Society of the Genesee, a group of local history enthusiasts and writers, Don has organized many of the groupís outings and always records the interesting historic details of the visit in a subsequent issue of local history journal "The Crooked Lake Review". He has contributed articles to that publication as well as to numerous local magazines and newspapers.

As mentioned, Don can often be found at the museum serving as a guide at the RGVRRM Industry depot, usually for weekday group tours. He also schedules the depot guides that hold forth there every Sunday in the summer season. Each spring Don assembles a new exhibit for the lobby of the depot, and this yearís focuses on "The Evolution of the Steam Locomotive". He also provided much of the material for the Casey Jones centennial exhibit that adorned the NYMT Gallery this past year.

With his keen interest in the educational aspects of our museum work, Don is always thinking about ways to improve the visitor experience. Someday we hope to get the corridor between the two NYMT buildings re-roofed, so we can take him up on his offer to paint the walls and make it a much more pleasant passageway.

Meanwhile, weíre glad to have Donovan Shillingís contributions of knowledge, experience and energy, bringing history to life for our visitors.