A Boy’s Dreams Come True
Harry Doolittle never had to grow up. The toy trains he loved as a boy and the fast cars he loved as a teenager became the real trains he drove and National Hot Rod Association drag racing he competed in when he became a man. And his wife, Rosalie, loved being along for the ride.
With two grandfathers and an uncle employed by the New York Central Railroad in Hillsdale, it’s hardly surprising that Harry loved trains. Grandpa Jay Johnson worked as an engineer and uncle Ernest Yinger worked as a hostler, the guy responsible for checking and maintaining engines that came into the roundhouse. Where other little kids got to sit on their parents’ laps to “drive” the family car, Harry got to sit on his grandpa’s or his uncle’s laps to “run the wye,” turning a train engine 180 degrees without the use of a turntable. The wye crossed Carleton twice in the area close to Spring, Lewis and Fayette streets as another man threw the switches to shift the tracks.
Harry’s grandpa Charles Doolittle was a railway postal worker. His “office” was a mail car hurtling along at 60 miles an hour, with a rigid timetable to keep. The sorting of the mail was done with blinding speed so that letters picked up at each station would be ready to drop off at other stations along the way. Like a sailor home from the sea or a cowboy off his horse, Charles had a gait on solid ground that reflected his time balancing on the racing train. According to Harry, he walked like a duck.
Harry’s dad, Earl, loved to take young Harry for walks along “Gasoline Alley,” where they stopped by the multiple filling stations that had replaced the livery stables when cars replaced horses. Today part of the decor in Harry’s home includes a Phillips 66 gas pump and other items like those he remembers seeing at his dad’s brother-in-law’s gas station and store in Bristol, Indiana, back in the late 1940s. Rosie doesn’t have any problem with all of Harry’s stuff. She thinks gas pumps are the height of fashion.
In 1963, teenaged Harry drove his second car, a ’58 Plymouth, to the Detroit Dragway, where he won the first drag race he entered. Harry was hooked and became a member of the National Hot Rod Association. Over the course of 50 years he made a name for himself, winning multiple races and setting over 70 national records. In 2013 he became the oldest competitor ever to win an NHRA Super Stock Eliminator title.
At the end of 1995, Harry began to drive the weekend “Dinner Train” for the Adrian & Blissfield Railroad, a moving mystery train ride that fit perfectly with his sense of adventure. After Harry and Rosie moved back to Hillsdale to help out his father, Harry worked for the Indiana Northeastern until 2005 and then accepted an offer from the Arizona & California Railroad in Arizona. Meanwhile, he added to his toy train set, including every train he ever drove or rode in.
In between racing and working as a train engineer, Harry actually had a life that resembled that of other adults. Beginning as a co-op student from Western Michigan University, he worked at the Ford Motor Company for almost 39 years, mostly in product development and design. But that didn’t keep him from trains or drag racing. He drove trains until his retirement in June 2014, and he has yet to stop racing.
Peter Pan would have envied Harry Doolittle. How many little boys watching their toy trains go around the track or pushing their toy cars while making motor noises get to play with those toys—in actual size—forever!