A Yale tale of toys and trains

As a boy, Lawrence Scripps Wilkinson played with electric trains. As a man, Wilkinson, a 1950 graduate of Yale College, still plays with electric trains.

Wilkinson presides over an unparalleled collection. He owns 7,000 antique toys, ranging from original hand puppets from Burma to the 1969 edition of Mattel’s Barbie, complete with a hot rod and boyfriend Ken. This summer Wilkinson added a display in New Haven’s Union Station as part of a nationwide exhibit titled, “Engines of Progress: The Great Trains of America’s Great Cities.”

Like most people, Wilkinson’s affinity for toys began in his childhood.

“My mother, eager to keep a clean house, would often remove toys from my room, giving them away as gifts,” Wilkinson said. “I would often return home from school to discover that my favorite toy was missing.”

Now Wilkinson takes pleasure in re-acquiring and exhibiting those toys.

“Engines of Progress” serves to educate people about the magnificent scale, speed and impact of the early railroads in America. His trains have appeared in major train depots, including Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

Wilkinson said that as an undergraduate at Yale he often traveled through the station to come to school. He said the station is still architecturally beautiful today and his decision to provide this gift was “a no-brainer.”

The seven scale model trains Wilkinson donated to Union Station were installed June 17. They currently rest atop benches in the station’s main concourse and in display cases. The exhibit displays scale replicas of locomotives and cars used on the Union Station rails from 1931 to 1957.

“America as we know it now was built because of railroads,” Wilkinson said. “Trains made transcontinental travel not only quick but safe.”

Wilkinson’s personal favorite, the General Electric EP-3 Electric Outline Locomotive, was originally introduced in 1931. The locomotive transported passengers and freight between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Wilkinson said he especially admires the train because it is a scale model originally produced as a toy.

In July the Wilkinson Foundation announced another gift to the Greater New Haven Area — a second donation of five trains to the Milford train station.

Henry Jadach, executive director of the Milford Transit District, said he expects the delivery of the trains in early November, with an anticipated exhibit opening of Dec. 1.

“The largest train will be a 25-car circus train, which I can’t wait to see,” Jadach said. “The smallest will be a two-car Civil War train.”

Jadach said he looks forward to the trains’ contribution to the station’s already museum-like ambience, replete with an exhibit of old photography.

“It’s a nice way to introduce travelers to Milford,” Jadach said. “The trains will make [our station] unique.”

Wilkinson is by no means an amateur toy exhibitor. While at Yale, he “exhibited” stuffed animals in his dorm room. Upon graduation he approached toy company FAO Schwarz and asked for a job as a buyer.

“I told them my engineering degree could help me better judge toy quality,” Wilkinson said.

After 12 years as a buyer, Wilkinson worked in store expansion and earned a vice-presidential position. He expanded the company’s number of stores from three stores located in Washington, D.C., Boston and Pennsylvania to 14 stores spanning from Los Angeles to Atlanta. When FAO Schwarz celebrated its centennial anniversary, Wilkinson acquired antique toys to showcase in stores across the country. This task sparked his personal interest in becoming an antique toy collector, he said.

He began exhibiting his toy collection in 1972 at the Miami Art Center upon the suggestion of the center’s director, a fellow toy-lover. In 1979, Wilkinson moved his collection from Miami to Detroit, his hometown.

In Detroit he entered into an agreement with the Detroit Antique Toy Museum to showcase his toys on behalf of the city in international and national exhibitions. Wilkinson has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia, holding shows and appearing on television in cities ranging from London to Tokyo. As part of the agreement, Wilkinson got a warehouse in which to store his extensive collection.

“The toys allowed me to view a lifestyle 100 or 50 years before,” Wilkinson said. “Buying antique toys is like buying a painting or any artifact from the past.”

Wilkinson’s collecting entailed extensive searches through databases and attendance at auctions and exhibitions.

“Negotiations took place in halls with thousands of people with products laid out on tables,” Wilkinson said.

Desirable antique toys sold with a price tag of $1,000, while one-of-a-kind merchandise often sells for around $250,000, he said.

Wilkinson currently serves as chairman of the advisory board of the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments. He also sits on the Council of Friends of Music at Yale.

He routinely visits Yale twice a year. After flying to New York he will commute via train to New Haven along the rails his scale models often traveled throughout the 20th century, and at Union Station he will find his favorite toys waiting for him.

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