INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — One man’s passion and another man’s selflessness has brought a community display to life in Independence, giving families the chance to create lifelong memories.
At a city-owned storefront in a quaint corner of Independence, there is a winter wonderland of yesteryear. Figurines and replica buildings with vibrant colors and minute details dot the large pieces of plywood that have been carefully painted in the design of a snow-kissed city. On the other side of the room, there’s a replica rail yard, fit with switches and railroad crossing signs that punctuate the hand-crafted masterpiece. Then, on an outer wall, a hulking handcrafted tunnel that was modeled after the Polar Express, featuring a train that has tiny puffs of smoke coming out of the engine.
It all comes to life with the press of a big red button.
“There’s no more Higbees and those windows aren’t there anymore but I hope when they see this it will be a memory that those kids will have for the rest of their lives,” said Angie Zidanic, the clerk of courts for Independence. “I know that he would absolutely love that he was making all these people smile that come by when they push the button and watch the trains. It would make him really happy.”
The toy train winter wonderland is the creation of fellow city employee Paul Kershman, who has seemingly spent all of his time not working in the city’s tech services department to honing in the cityscape. There are also two peddle cars and a large sleigh on display that Kershman rehabbed himself.
The community display, which sits in a storefront on Brecksville Road, had its humble beginnings in 2016. It began with one train and one set of track.
“Paul is a good friend. He knows exactly what this means,” Zidanic said. “I don’t think he’s done yet.”
He wasn’t done back then either.
With the blessing of Mayor Anthony Togliatti, the single display evolved into the large cityscape in 2017. Then, earlier this year, the display expanded into the expansive railyard. Then, just last week, Kershman put the finishing touches on the Polar Express display.
All of it was built by hand.
“He’s probably got 150 hours – most of it on his own time -- into creating all of this. The Polar Express really is the icing on the cake,” Zidanic said. “When Christmas can be bittersweet, it brings a lot of joy to my heart.”
When pressing the big red button, which sends all the trains in motion for 90 seconds, Zidanic’s face lights up like the brightest bulb. It is in this moment, amid the hum and chugging of toy trains, that Zidanic feels closer to her best friend, her late husband, Joe.
“Absolutely. How could you not look at this and know how much he loved them and how much effort he put into them?” Zidanic said. “It just makes me happy that everybody can enjoy them and I know that it would make him happy too.”
In 2013, doctors diagnosed Joe with pancreatic cancer. Luckily, the diagnosis came early, giving him a good outlook. Well over six feet tall with broad, hulking shoulders, Joe was known as the ‘can-do’ man.
He lived up to his moniker, beating cancer into remission.
“A year later it came back,” Zidanic said. “He struggled with that for about a year and a half but he did all the building of the trains while he was sick. It was his therapy.”
Not one to wallow in self-pity, Joe spent hours in the basement, carefully constructing scenes for his model trains. Eventually, the scenes grew to be so large they could accommodate five trains. It kept his mind and body sharp.
Joe passed away in 2016.
As Christmas came around, Zidanic reached out to Kershman, knowing he was looking to expand the Christmas display in the Brecksville Road storefront. Zidanic offered Kershman one of her late husband’s beloved model trains.
As the Christmas display has grown over the past two years so has Zidanic’s contributions. All but one of the trains are from her late husband’s collection. Now, they are on display for all to see.
“He would have probably said I wish I would have thought of this myself,” Zidanic said.