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Training her sights on cancer research

New York Teacher
Peggy Keyes
Peggy Keyes

Peggy Keyes’ model train museum, which benefits pancreatic cancer research, includes a room with several train systems and a playroom with trains for children.

The husband of retired teacher Peggy Keyes was devoted to model trains, a passion his mother sparked when she brought him a train set from Paris in the 1940s. Throughout their marriage, Larry Keyes was at train shows at least twice a month adding to his collection, and he spent weeks setting up their annual holiday train display.

It all went with them when they retired in 1998 — Peggy after 20 years as a special education teacher in the Bronx — and moved from Yonkers to Lake Lure, North Carolina. They had purchased a home in the popular tourist destination in 1994 and moved there full time in late 2001. Larry Keyes died in November 2007, three months after a CT scan confirmed he had late-stage pancreatic cancer.

Peggy Keyes said she was dismayed to learn there had not been more advances in pancreatic cancer research and treatment, particularly in diagnosing the disease.

“I was trying to think what I could do to raise funds and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got trains,’” said Keyes, who taught at Harry S. Truman HS. She decided to share her husband’s expansive model train collection with the world and donate proceeds to research and treatment for the disease.

The small museum in the center of town, which local model train enthusiasts helped Keyes set up, has a playroom for children ages 2-6, a large room with three train systems and a gift shop. In the main room, visitors push buttons to activate trains from the early 1900s to the present, light up buildings, set a windmill in motion, trigger a car to move outside a classic 1950s diner, and spark other activity in an imaginary town.

When Keyes opened the Right Track to a Cure for Pancreatic Cancer Toy Train Museum in Lake Lure in 2011, she allied herself with the California-based Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), which funds research, supports families and advocates for patients and their families. When possible, she targets contributions to fund research on finding a diagnostic tool. “I truly believe that is the most important thing,” she said.

Most patients are at stage IV when they are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, meaning the cancer has spread and cannot be removed by surgery, according to PanCAN.

Keyes, who has since survived breast cancer, made her first donation to the California-based group in 2007. Thanks to the museum, she has contributed more than $80,000, which is an “amazing legacy for her husband,” said Pamela Acosta Marquardt, who founded PanCAN in 1999 after losing her mother to the disease.

This is the 13th and final year the train museum will be open, said Keyes, who is 87 years old and is moving to a senior community. Everything will be sold off to benefit pancreatic cancer research.

In addition to the train collection, the museum houses a memory wall with photos of her husband, actors Patrick Swayze and Michael Landon, and others felled by the disease.

During the 12 years the museum has been in operation, Keyes has met model train enthusiasts of all ages from all over the world. One of her most poignant experiences at the museum was a chance visit by a California family. On that day, a man walked into the museum to look around. He left and returned with his wife and two teenage sons. Keyes learned they were in the area because the man’s father had recently died of pancreatic cancer.

“When they walked out,” Keyes said, “I heard the wife say to the husband, ‘I feel much better.’ ”

Related Topics: Retired Teachers