HOPKINTON — At 73, Ray Cox is a busy man with many passions, the most consuming of which is his extensive model train collection. A hospitable man, he always welcomes visitors who want to see his trains. But there is a small catch: All guests must first run the gauntlet of domestic geese that live at the pond on his property and honk loudly whenever anyone stops by. All of them were “donated” by people who could no longer keep them, and Cox likes caring for them and the occasional wild geese and mallards who visit his pond.
“They’re good watchdogs,” he said of the geese. “They’ll let you know when someone’s driving in.”
A former member of the Hopkinton Planning Board, Cox still drops by the planning office once in a while to chat with Town Planner Jim Lamphere.
“He’s a regular visitor to the department here,” Lamphere said. “He’s a good- hearted man who cares about the town of Hopkinton. He’s a good guy. Everybody likes him.”
Cox was born and raised in Westerly and graduated from Westerly High School in 1958. He still has fond memories of days spent sledding and skating at Wilcox Park.
“We used to sled down Lemon Hill. We used to take our sleds and go right down onto the ice. You can’t do that anymore,” he said. “We played. We had fun as kids. Of course, the town was smaller. We’d all be there, skating.”
After working for nearly 34 years as a nuclear inspector for Electric Boat, Cox, an Army veteran, was offered an early retirement package and jumped at it. As he tells it, that’s when his life really began.
“I took the golden handshake at 55, and that’s when I said ‘gee, there is a life out here, isn’t there, besides EB,’” he said. “It was a very good job, but when they said ‘you can leave’ and they were going to pay me, I said ‘where do I sign?’”
Cox bought a tiny mobile home on a 1½ acre lot, fixed it up, and began expanding an existing pond into something much bigger, with multiple levels, a large waterfall and other features. He said the main reason he did it was to get rid of the lawn.
“I didn’t want to mow grass the rest of my life. I turned it into a pond and made it something. I’ve been working on it since I’ve been here. I’m building a wall now,” he said.
Retirement also gave Cox time to embark on his most challenging project: collecting antique model trains. His love affair with trains began with the one under his family’s Christmas tree.
“We always had a train around the Christmas tree,” he said. “It ran around the tree and it was out for two weeks and then Dad put it away. It was gone. We couldn’t wait for Christmas. We didn’t care what anyone gave us, we wanted to see the train. That was the highlight. The train around the tree.”
Cox’s trains and old toys (he admits the Popeye and Olive Oil model is his favorite) are lovingly displayed in a large separate building behind his house. He estimates the collection which he says is “in the thousands” is worth about $1 million.
In addition to the many rows of orderly, lighted shelves of trains and locomotives and railway accessories, there’s a special room upstairs, where Cox has meticulously recreated tiny scenes of American life in days gone by. Blowing their whistles and puffing steam, little trains wend their way through replicas of small towns with their fire stations, farms, a junkyard — even waterfalls and ponds with real water in them. In one corner, there’s an old-fashioned circus with a tent and a collection of exotic animals.
Cox pointed out the grass and trees which he crafted from plants he found on his property. The ceiling, painted a realistic sky blue, is adorned with painted white clouds.
The extraordinary display looks as though it took years to complete, but Cox said it took him only a couple of months to create the elaborate scenes.
“I’m gifted. I see it before it’s there,” he said simply. “I don’t play with the trains. I just had fun building them. I’m a late bloomer.”
Cox goes on frequent “hunting expeditions” to find trains to add to his collection, and he also buys trains on eBay. Most of his finds were made by the Louis Marx Company, an early 20th century toymaker known as the “Toy King,” with a reputation for producing the highest quality and most reliable model trains.
Cox said he thought it was a shame that most of today’s children would never have the chance to play with model trains.
“Kids today, electronics took over,” he said. “I feel sorry for them. They’re missing a good time.
Models trains aren’t Cox’s only passion. When he was 60, he decided to take up figure skating, and as with everything he does, he jumped in with boundless enthusiasm. He now skates four or five days a week, volunteers as a skating teacher at the Washington Trust Community Skating Rink in Westerly on Saturdays, and takes a weekly lesson.
“I’m helping them out on Saturday mornings with the ‘learn to skate’ program,” he said. “I take lessons on Wednesdays. I have my own instructor. She’s good. She was with ‘Disney on Ice’ and she’s a professional skater, so she’s taught me a lot of good stuff.”
“He’s a pretty good figure skater,” Lamphere said. “It takes a lot of agility to do that.”
Cox lives simply and has gone without many modern conveniences in order to do all the things he loves.
“I’m not rich, but I played it smartly,” he said. “I have a TV antenna. I don’t have cable. I’ve got my priorities straight. I do finally have a computer. I’ve still got a telephone out there you still put your finger in and dial it. I don’t have a cell phone.”
Planning Board member Howard Walker said he hoped his retirement would be as rewarding as Cox’s.
“I hope I’ll be able to say that I made as much out of my retirement as he has out of his,” he said. “He certainly has made the best out of what his life has given him,” he said.
Cox’s roof antenna pulls in a few channels, mostly news and some sports, and he’s looking forward to watching the Olympics, especially the figure skating.
“I’ll see the Olympics. I’ll see the skaters,” he said with a laugh. “Oh, I’ll be watching it.”