by Len Lear
I can still recall riding the Chestnut Hill Local (the train, not the newspaper) in the 1970s, long before the riders were preoccupied with cell phones, not so much because of the ride itself but because of the train caller for Conrail who announced the “FAB-U-LOUS” train stops and other relevant information in the most rich, mellifluous tones imaginable.
The caller, Glenn Lewis, who was often compared to the late sports commentator Howard Cosell, was obviously a frustrated radio announcer who actually did study broadcasting for two years before using his dulcet musical voice on a much different stage. (The Consolidated Rail Corporation, by the way, commonly known as Conrail, was the primary Class I railroad in the Northeastern U.S. between 1976 and 1999.)
Lewis, now 75 and residing in Cheltenham, has written a book, “The Railroad Conspiracy,” with the help of renowned ghost-writer Donald MacLaren, which recounts the story of how and why Lewis’ voice was stilled. Lewis maintains that he was constantly harassed by certain Conrail employees and supervisors because of “jealousy and racism” as a result of the publicity and adulation that was coming his way.
For instance, Philadelphia Bulletin columnist Rose DeWolf wrote on Jan. 28, 1977, that “they (train commuters) want to hear Glenn Lewis, though they do not know his name … You have to understand that your average train commuter is happy — even thrilled — to merely be able to hear what the train caller is saying at all. The sound systems in the cavernous railroad stations of our land are not all the best. Sometimes it sounds as if the train callers are speaking right into their palms. (Maybe some are.)
“Stationmaster Frank Carr says Lewis is the first train caller in his memory to start off each day by saying: ‘Good morning, people out there.’ Carr says compliments have been coming in about Lewis. ‘He takes the drag out of waiting for a train.’ Funny how just one guy doing his job with a bit of extra gusto can make such a difference … can liven everything up.”
Another article in the Feb. 5, 1977, issue of the Philadelphia Tribune said, “Officials at the station have pegged Lewis as ‘the best train caller we’ve had in years’ … the man who is known as ‘Have Voice, Will Travel’ … He ad libs all of his calls with a style that has caused many of the passengers to stop and take notice.”
However, despite all of the praise from commuters, some fellow workers and 11 local newspaper articles, Lewis’ employment with Conrail ended on March 19, 1980, after five-and-a-half years. Lewis insists that he was plagued by “unwarranted demotions, harassment, public humiliation, racism and eventually what I consider was an attempt on my life.”
Since Lewis left Conrail in 1980, why did it take so long to write the book? “I started working on the book a couple of months after getting hired at the Water Department. (He worked at the Water Department from November, 1984, until February, 2004, when he retired.) It took me 27 years. I had to meet the right people, such as Donald MacLaren, ghostwriter.”
According to MacLaren, “As his popularity grew and he became famous, so did the jealousy of his superiors. Since Mr. Lewis was an African American, his white superiors and other executives started to attack him and accuse him falsely of misconduct. The superiors began to reduce his job functions and publicly humiliated him whenever they could.”
MacLaren, a New Jersey native, graduated from a seminary and went on to work in a variety of businesses. For the past 20+ years, he has been a co-author and editor on book and screenplay projects. He has helped 34 books get published and has written five feature film screenplays that are available for Hollywood. (He can be contacted at email@example.com)
Lewis, a Philadelphia native, graduated from Edison High School in North Philly and was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army. During his two decades with the Philadelphia Water Department after leaving Conrail, he received several awards and commendations. He is currently working part-time “and promoting my book. I keep handing out flyers about the book throughout the city, New Jersey and Delaware.”
The book’s dedication page says it is “dedicated to those who have had to suffer all forms of prejudice, harassment and discrimination on the job.”
“The Railroad Conspiracy” is available at CreatSpace.com (the Amazon company) directly and as an eBook on Amazon kindle (Kdp.com).