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He thinks, helps, outside the box


Dale Flansburg and his military buddies find ways to assist those in need

GERMANTOWN–He looks like Brian Dennehy. Under his Marine Corps baseball cap, his buzz cut has grown long – maybe ¾”. He is wearing a flannel shirt and chinos. His eyes flash mischief. This is Dale Flansburg. I met with him in his two-room showplace of railroad memorabilia.

Dale’s family, who he has traced back to the Revolutionary War, has always been from this area. Dale grew up in Cairo, and his distant ancestors trace to Johnstown and the environs of Albany.

After a few years of college, Dale joined the Marines. It was the mid-’50s and peacetime so he did not see combat, but the experience and the people he met have stayed with him.

Though he does not have a college degree, Dale was always good with math and engineering, and after the Marines he joined IBM, transferring early on to the engineering group. After several conventional jobs he found himself being asked to find solutions to problems that fell outside traditional parameters. Why? Well, suffice it to say that Dale has never been one to think inside the box. In fact, he revels in the unusual solution. So, for example, well before there were air couriers like Federal Express, IBM found itself needing to shift a critical component from one site to another, hundreds of miles away. There was not enough time to cut the usual transfer paperwork or effect normal shipping. Dale bought a ticket on a commercial airline flight that fit the time constraints, prevailed on a flight attendant to keep an eye on the “precious” cargo riding on the seat, and arranged for a confederate at the destination to meet the flight, find the flight attendant and close the deal.

Dale initially built what is now a small railroad museum to house his wife’s quilting business, but when he retired and then she died, he took it over “so I’d have a hobby to keep myself out of the bars.” The contents are amazing: Dining Car china, silver, tablecloths and menus; station and crossing signs; lanterns, lights, timetables, ticket stock and posters; uniforms; and lots of books and photographs. All of which Dale will happily show anyone who calls to make an appointment. Dale also speaks on occasion at local libraries and leads tours of railroad sights in the area. (When I met with him he had just come back from a tour of the Catskills area with railroading buddies, swapping tidbits of history and engineering.)

Dale also takes joy in helping others. In 1993, when the Mississippi River flooded St. Louis, Dale saw the events on the news, went home, packed a small bag and hopped a train to St. Louis, where he worked at a Salvation Army shelter.

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, at the age of 69, he did it again. He called his kids and said he was taking off, boarded a train to Atlanta, rented a car there, and then stopped in at the local Salvation Army. Knowing that access to the Gulf Coast was restricted, with a little creative writing he fashioned an official looking “pass” to see him through to the Pascagoula, Mississippi, area, shipped himself out and found the Salvation Army shelter there, where he volunteered “for whatever grunt work they most needed.” That included clearing toppled trees and other clean up.

The next day, he got word that a group of ex-Marines from North Carolina was headed for Pascagoula, and he joined up with them. The contingent spent two weeks feeding displaced residents, preparing meals in a huge self-contained field kitchen that the North Carolina group had towed down with them and serving the meals from a Salvation Army emergency vehicle.

Of course, Dale being Dale, they also found unusual ways to solve some problems. It was around 100 degrees every day. The electricity was not working. The group needed a way to cool some of their food supplies. Dale spotted huge blocks of ice that the National Guard was holding, under orders from FEMA. He sweet talked a guardsman out of one block, then another, then a truck to carry the first block. Still needing transport for the other block, he borrowed a tractor from a nearby farmer.

One day, a female naval officer came by to talk to Dale’s group: where were they sleeping, did they want to take showers and have a bed for the night? They said yes, and that evening went off to the USS Comfort, a 1,000-bed hospital ship that had berthed in Pascagoula. After a tour (railroad men secretly also love ships) they lined up for a meal, to discover that the Navy wanted to vaccinate all the rescue workers against tetanus and hepatitis, as a nurse and doctor made their way along the mess line, giving shots to the waiting men.

Dale stays in touch with the Marines he met in Mississippi, visiting with them in North Carolina, where he now spends his winters with his partner, Nancy. He and Nancy went to college together. Then they lost touch. Years after his wife died, Dale went to East Greenbush where, he remembered, Nancy had lived 50 years earlier when they were in college. Through the librarian, he tracked Nancy down. They reconnected and now split their time between Germantown and the Raleigh area. The last time Dale was in North Carolina, he ran into a buddy from his service in the Marines, nearly 50 years ago.

Dale doesn’t think his St. Louis or Katrina experiences are worth writing about. Why? Because, he says, “I was the one who gained the most.”

If you know of someone who helps others and The Columbia Paper might profile, contact Deborah Lans at


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