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Bill Sellers was a big fan of trains, rains and temperatures

POSTED: August 14, 2011 1:00 a.m.

For family entertainment, Bill Sellers used to pile his wife Miriam and two sons Bruce and Billy into their car and track down a train.

One of his father's favorite things, says Bruce, was to drive their car alongside the old Gainesville Midland steam engine, especially on the roads around Candler and Belmont, all the way to Athens.

Bill Sellers, who died a few days ago, knew the Gainesville Midland inside and out. He was instrumental in restoring old Engine 209, which now sits in a railroad park at the intersection of Jesse Jewell Parkway and West Academy Street.

He tracked the history of that steam engine from its birth in 1932 as No. 533 for Seaboard Airline Railway, one of a very few new locomotives built during that Depression year. Gainesville Midland bought it from Durham & Southern Railroad about 1954 as many railroads were switching to diesel engines. Now designated No. 209, it spent its final days lugging poultry feed and other cargo from Athens to Gainesville.

Bill was on hand with a large crowd feasting on barbecue chicken Sept. 19, 1959, when it double-headed with Engine 203 for a final steam excursion. For a while afterward the engine sat in front of the old Press-Radio Center on West Spring Street, where Bill worked for WGGA radio station. It was there that to Bill's everlasting sadness, somebody stole Engine 209's bell.

His curiosity about trains came as a child when he would hitch rides between stops in eastern North Carolina. He learned station stops and timetables of various trains in that region, his memory so great he could still cite them until he died at age 89.

Bill was so infatuated with trains that instead of courting Miriam by taking her to the movies or dances like other couples, they more often would park at various spots waiting for a train to come by.
In retirement he spent many hours building and running an elaborate and extensive model train display in his basement.

If trains were his passion, weather wasn't far behind. He wasn't a meteorologist, but he had served as Gainesville's official weather observer since 1965, when he succeeded the late Judge Sam Harben. It wasn't his job to forecast weather, though he was knowledgeable enough to do that with some accuracy. He was to measure every drop of rain that fell in Gainesville and record the day's high and low temperatures. This he dutifully reported to the National Weather Service, which logged them as Gainesville's official records.

The weather service now has instruments that record temperatures and precipitation at Gainesville's Lee Gilmer Airport, but it still relies on weather observers for official numbers. The Times and local radio stations used to call Bill regularly for that information, which he readily supplied, usually with some additional comment, if requested.

After he suffered a stroke two years ago that affected his vision and hearing, his family faithfully took up the torch. Miriam and one of the sons had been used to filling in for Bill anyway on the rare occasions when he couldn't record the weather.

One of Bill's weather friends was Atlanta WAGA-TV meteorologist Ken Cook.
Perhaps the prospect of living in a town with steam trains helped lure Bill to Gainesville. But his official job was with radio station WGGA, where his mellow rich voice became familiar to North Georgia listeners.
It wasn't long, however, that the railroad proved too much of an attraction for him. He took a job with Southern Railway, which later became Norfolk-Southern, where he did his favorite thing until retirement in 1986.

While thoroughly knowledgeable about trains, the weather and the radio business, his interests were unlimited.

"Dad was literally a walking encyclopedia about any number of things," son Bruce said. "When we couldn't remember something about the past we could ask him and chances were he'd remember it down to the year and day ... and probably remember what the weather was like ... "

Bill Sellers is missed already by many people. But Gainesville won't be without a community weather observer. The National Weather Service always considered "the Sellers family" to be its observers anyway. And, his family said, Bill probably will be observing from the cab of some heavenly steam engine.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.



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