Frank Cox, known to generations of San Diegans as “Frank the Trainman” because of a four-decade affiliation with his own model train shop, died Thursday of a heart attack. He was 82.
“He was the dean of train collectors,” said Tom Sefton, president of San Diego Trust & Savings Bank, who said he and Cox had been friends since 1946. “He was responsible more than anyone else by far for the introduction of trains at Christmas time . . . for the young finding trains under the tree. He was a fine person. The hobby will miss him very much.”
Cox, who was born in England but moved to San Diego 76 years ago, opened the Frank the Trainman Shop at 4310 Park Blvd. in 1943, after having sold and displayed trains out of the garage of his home on Cleveland Avenue in University Heights.
Legendary Neon Sign
His shop was characterized by a legendary neon sign that went up in 1947 and remains in place at the same location--although the site was recently taken over by a branch of Mission Federal Credit Union.
The current Frank the Trainman Shop is operated at 4207 Park Blvd. by Jim Cooley, Cox’s protege and successor.
Although Cooley said he and Cox were friends, he laughed when asked to assess his former boss as a fellow human being.
“He could be a great person--when he wanted to be,” Cooley said with a chuckle. “He didn’t have many interests besides trains. He loved to dance. He and his wife used to go dancing.
“At times he would go out of his way for folks, especially with the trains and such. He was respected for the work he did with the San Diego Railroad Club. He helped a lot of members. Everybody could always turn to him when they had questions. He always had an answer.”
Cooley said regular customers of Cox’s included former baseball star Steve Garvey and Sen. Pete Wilson, whom he described as model-train aficionados. But the thing that most appealed to Cox about owning his own shop was being his own boss.
“Not having to work with or answer to other people,” Cooley said. “Before, he was always working for someone else. Here, he worked for himself, by himself. The shop gave him independence. It also got him into a field where he was the expert.”
Cooley said the most excited he ever saw Cox was when a customer would bring a rare model train into the shop.
“He would beam and gleam,” Cooley said. “He lived to see things like an old Carlisle & Finch. That would get him cooking like nothing else would.”
Asked his boss’ single-most important contribution, Cooley said: “Just say that he was devoted in his hobby. A hobby’s important; it fills a void in a man’s life. It’s better than having your days slip away watching television.”
Dad Headed Shoe Section
After graduating from high school in San Diego, Cox worked in the old Marston’s Department Store. His father headed the shoe section.
At the height of the Great Depression, Cox switched jobs, signing on with the old Ben Hur Coffee Co., near the train tracks downtown. He became Frank the Trainman in 1941 after visiting a collector of trains, an experience he said he never forgot and which changed his life, inspiring him, as it did, to enter his own business.
Cox left the shop in 1981, turning it over to Cooley. His health had deteriorated steadily since then, Cooley said.
Cox is survived by his wife, Helen; his son, Frank L. Cox of Florida; two daughters, Dorothy Plock of Texas and Lucille Lopshire of Alaska; four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Lewis Colonial-Benbough Mortuary, followed by entombment at Cypress View Mausoleum.