For as long as he can remember, Kenneth Matassa has been riveted by the rails.
As a youngster, he could often be found messing about with model trains or circling tracks around a tree in his family’s yard.
Asked how he fell into the hobby, though, and one might be met with a shrug.
“I can’t tell you,” the 72-year-old said during a recent interview.
Whatever the reason, the fascination has followed him throughout his life. That passion pushed him to start what is now the Orange County Model Engineers: The nonprofit group that operates and maintains the popular railroad in Costa Mesa’s Fairview Park.
Today, more than 30 years after the club hammered in its golden spike, Matassa remains a board member, its vice president of facilities and travels from his home in Santa Ana each week to volunteer.
While he’s long served as stationmaster of the Model Engineers’ Mackerel Flats and Goat Hill Junction Railroad — helping count passengers and make sure they safely board — it’s his willingness to tackle other tasks, such as cleaning the restrooms, that inspired City Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds to tout him as an “unsung hero.”
“You’ll see Kenny every public run weekend, and many days in between, spending the whole day on his feet — welcoming visitors to the train station, announcing the train rules, helping passengers board the trains, and overseeing other operations and activities throughout the day,” she wrote in an email.
“He just loves, loves, loves to be helpful and to be able to be part of the amazing public amenity that OCME provides for our community,” she added. “He is also mentoring some of the younger engineers who have become members of OCME.”
For his part, Matassa was taken aback at the nomination.
“I’m surprised,” he said with a laugh. “I would not have thought that to be the case but, hey.”
For all the reasons Matassa is involved with the Model Engineers, public recognition doesn’t even come close to topping the list.
“It’s good camaraderie … model railroading is my No. 1 hobby and just the fun of being out here in the open,” he said. “It keeps me busy and active. It gets me exercise, instead of sitting around like a couch potato all day.”
From glassblowing to electronics to trains
Matassa was born in Glendale in 1946. His father was in the U.S. Air Force and the family moved around often, making homes on bases in Texas and Arizona.
Eventually, Matassa’s family returned to Orange County and he graduated from Garden Grove High School. After a stint at Santa Ana College, he transferred to UC Irvine, where he majored in physics.
Although he came within shouting distance of graduating, he never earned his degree. Juggling a full-time job and his course load was hard enough, but it was impossible to keep up with everything when he became a caregiver for his mother.
Professionally, Matassa worked as a glassblower and at an electronics company and architectural drafting firm before retiring about eight years ago.
Riding the rails
As a subscriber to the Model Railroader magazine, Matassa occasionally came across articles in his earlier years about “live steam clubs” that operate scaled-down, ride-able trains, such as the Los Angeles Live Steamers in Griffith Park and the Riverside Live Steamers in that city’s Hunter Park.
“They’re a long drive to get out to for us here, and I wanted to have something here I could go to,” he said.
Matassa joined the Long Beach Live Steamers but, after that club folded, he worked to launch an Orange County-based group in the late 1970s.
The Orange County Live Steamers, as the club was originally called, considered laying a railroad in Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and Irvine before eventually landing in Costa Mesa.
The group — rebranded as the Model Engineers — incorporated in 1985 and started construction on its first loop of track in 1989. Now, the nearly 200 members operate a 7.5-inch gauge railroad with more than 5 miles of track on the eastern side of Fairview Park, along with an on-site maintenance yard, gift shop and restroom.
“It’s not a model railroad; it’s a real railroad,” Matassa said. “We’re outside, we have all the problems that full-size railroads do and have to contend with — weather, vermin, track wearing out, that sort of thing. So it’s constant, steady work.”
And, he points out, the responsibility for maintaining all the club’s facilities falls on the shoulders of volunteers who donate their time and energy.
“The environmentalists like us because we’re stewards of the site, and the public likes us because of the trains,” he said.