Longtime hobbies secret to youth for V.J. Vicknair, 89

Staff Report

The word “retirement” has never been a part of V.J. Vicknair’s vocabulary.

V.J. Vicknair watches over the operation of trains on the model railroad at his Plaquemine home. At 89, it’s an activity that keeps him busy daily.

He may have stepped away from the day-to-day operations of the printing business. He started with Franklin Press in Baton Rouge. He started his own business in 1974 in the building that housed the Iberville South, which later merged with Post/South.

He eased away from the business in recent years, but he said he can’t fully adjust to retired life.

Vicknair, 89, does not believe retirement should mean confinement to an easy chair.

V.J. Vicknair and his wife, Carolyn, stand in front of the door leading to the train room. The sign bears the name of their children and great-grandchildren.

Instead, he stays busy with hobbies that he has enjoyed through the years. Rather than a drive to work, it requires nothing more than a short walk to the workshop he built behind his north Plaquemine home.

“I just can’t sit still,” he said. “Even with arthritis in my hip, knee and back, I can’t stop.”

His workshop houses a wonderland of hobbies, many of which are linked to his wife, his daughter, Vickey, and son, Stephen, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

V.J. Vicknair displays a selection of the railroad cars that make up his model train layout.

One walk into the room gives an idea of everything Vicknair has loved throughout his life, down to the music he has stored on his iPad, which includes classic standards from Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and many others.

From background music to his vast collection of hand-cut wooden yard signs to scale model-sized cypress swamp homes he has built for hundreds of people, the building stores many of the greatest loves in his life.

V.J. Vicknair has created more than 100 cypress houses, many of which he has donated to Catholic schools for fundraising raffles.

Vicknair has built 107 cypress houses thus far. He has donated several to St. John, Ascension Catholic, Holy Family and Catholic High-Baton Rouge for raffles to raise extra money for those schools.

“They take 20 to 25 hours to build, but they’re a labor of love,” he said.

As for the yard signs, most carry seasonal themes, most notably for Christmas, Easter and Mardi Gras. The signs have become familiar scenes on front lawns of many homes throughout Plaquemine.

V.J. Vicknair has been known around Plaquemine for his handmade and hand-painted seasonal yard signs that have become common sight on many front lawns throughout the city.

“Everything I built I have to build in sets of four so I can make sure I can have one for my wife and daughter,” he said. “The sheet of plywood costs $40, and I get three or four days of pleasure out of it.”

He has also built birdhouses that he has donated for auctions.

Vicknair also opened his garage to many fathers and sons to create their cars for the annual Cub Scout Soap Box Derby, which has been a Plaquemine mainstay since 1947.

If all those projects don’t seem like enough to keep V.J. busy, the biggest fascination can be found in the back room of his shed.

The “open” sign on the door says everything about the love he has for both his family and his work.

It bears the name of grandchildren Trish, along with Blakeley, Alex, Noelle, Mikayla, Taylor and "Paw Paw’s Train Room.”

The names refer to grandchildren Trish Gueho, Blakeley Vicknair, Alex Vicknair, Mikayla along with great-grandkids Noelle and Taylor Gueho.

Behind the door, vast model railroad – 12 feet deep by 24 feet wide – nearly fills the room.

The O-model Lionel and MTH trains are part of a collection he and his wife, Carolyn, (who recently celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary) bought for their son Stephen during his childhood.

The late Brian Breaux, who was also a model railroad enthusiast, played a big role in creation Vicknair’s model railroad.

“He helped me with so much along the way,” he said. “Brian was a very talented man.”

V.J. Vicknair’s train city includes a mechanical windmill and wooden train bridge he built himself. It also features vestiges of classic Main Street America, including a full-service gas station, a diner and an auto garage, all which remind him of Plaquemine during the 1940s and ‘50s.

The railroad circles around a model town reminiscent of Plaquemine and other small towns during middle 20th century. It includes a bustling downtown area anchored by a church, a diner, a full-service gas station and town square, among other vintage fixtures symbolic of Main Street America.

He purchased many of the scale model buildings for the layout. But being a master craftsman enabled Vicknair to build the train bridge himself.

“This is how I decompress,” he said.

Born in 1932, Vicknair came of age around the same period when railroads still ran a close race with automobiles for distant travel.

“You could take a train from any town in those days,” he recalled. “You could go from here to Donaldsonville, or you could go anywhere else … I took a train to El Paso, Texas, when I served in the National Guard … we’d leave at 10 a.m. on Saturday and get there the following day at 2 p.m., and I road in the cabooses.

In the same guise as the printer who watches each copy to make sure of consistency, Vicknair is meticulous with the operation of the train. 

As he demonstrated the operation of the train, he carefully watched each portion of the locomotive to ensure it functioned properly.

Although work may seem tedious for a display that consumes most of the space in the room, it’s much easier process than it was when he started it with his son.

“We had a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood hanging in the workshop and every time you want to run it you had to bring it down, blow off the sawdust and plug the trains.”

After his son Stephen grew up and moved away, V.J.'s granddaughter Trish Gueho, asked an unexpected question.

“Paw-Paw, why don’t you ever run the trains?”

It got the wheels turning on her fascination with electric trains.

The love for model railroads extended to the next generation it captured the imagination of his great-grandson Taylor Gueho, now 18.

While the kids have grown, the model railroad remains a seemingly journey for V.J. Vicknair.

As he talked about the model railroad and tried to figure out a glitch on one of the railroads, he got some help from his friend Ray Parrish, an Addis resident who has had a long fascination with electric trains.

“This is all a man’s toy,” Vicknair said. “Most of all, it’s an escape … when I wasn’t working, he was back here working on this.”

It also brings back memories from his childhood when he’d walk to D’Albor’s Ben Franklin 5&10 on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Court Street to watch the model railroads on display in the store window.

“Those were such fun times,” he said. “Even today, I’m still having fun.”

At his age, he admits his wife gets nervous about him working alone in the workshop.

Even though he walked away from his print shop permanently since the start of the pandemic, he said he cannot allow himself not to keep busy.

“Carolyn keeps me going back here.  She watches over me, but I can’t slow down,” Vicknair said. “I’d be a damn couch potato within a year.”