Trains, Spacecraft and GW: One Engineer’s Journey

Reg Mitchell, left, is a Mileage Collector (Photo by George L. Fleming).
Former NASA engineer Reg Mitchell, left, has a goal to ride every rail line in all 50 US states (Photo by George L. Fleming).

A “rocket scientist” who plays with trains may be one way to refer to alumnus Reg Mitchell, SEAS BS ’65 and MS ’67, but that description alone can’t tell the whole story.

On New Year’s Eve in 1945, at the tender age of three and a half years old, Mitchell was awestruck by seeing a steam locomotive—it captured his imagination and never let go.  Almost 70 years later that passion for trains has led him to ride the rails in 49 states and eight of the 10 Canadian Provinces.

Mitchell is a Mileage Collector, a relatively obscure and loosely organized group of railroad fans whose goal is to ride as many rail lines as possible.

“My personal goal is to ride every line in all 50 states, which is about 142,000 miles,” Mitchell says. As of today, he estimates he’s almost 75-85% done.

A type of triple threat in the mileage collectors’ circle, Mitchell not only logs miles but he also collects model trains and invests financially in the rail industry.  To top it all off, he has a photo library of more than 35,000 slides from his travels, beginning in 1960.

Similar to his exposure to trains, Mitchell was introduced to engineering early in his life: He is named for famed British aeronautical engineer Reginald Mitchell, who designed the legendary Spitfire aircraft.
Mitchell’s father, who served in World War II, was purposeful in choosing an eponym for his son with personal historical importance.

The dual influence of trains and engineering led to childhood dreams of one day working in the railroad industry.

An ardent boyhood fan of TV show Mr. Wizard, Mitchell eventually attended Washington-Lee High School in the science track.  When GW offered him a full scholarship to pursue his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Mitchell was all aboard.

“Professor Robert Dedrick was the first GW teacher I met when I came to GW as a prospective student,” says Mitchell. This turned out to be the first of many meetings for the two.

Ultimately, Dedrick became Mitchell’s master’s thesis advisor, but left GW for a career at NIH’s bioengineering division before Mitchell completed his degree.  But the professor remained dedicated to his pupil: Dedrick continued to advise Mitchell on his thesis even after he left.

The gesture is something Mitchell never forgot. Half a century later, Mitchell is naming a professor’s room in the new Science and Engineering Hall for Dedrick.

“GW had faith in me when I needed help and now I am happy to be able to give some back to the university,” explains Mitchell.  “I attribute a lot of my professional and financial success to my GW education.”

And though he didn’t end up in the rail industry like he dreamed as a boy, Mitchell did find a way to put his skills to use.  While still a student at GW, Mitchell learned of a summer job at the Goddard Space Flight Center through his professor, Morris Ojalvo.

That summer job later turned into a 42-year career with NASA, where he worked as an engineer, testing and evaluating spacecraft and working and advising on NASA’s NASTRAN structural analysis computer program.

Mitchell credits his GW education for “impart[ing] the knowledge and logical thinking skills needed for life in a technical field.”

Today, Mitchell continues to put both his childhood dreams and engineering prowess to good use as he pursues his rail-riding goals.  If you’re wondering when he’ll get to Hawaii, the missing state to complete his list, you’ll have to keep waiting. “I’ve got nothing in the queue right now,” Mitchell says.

But his recommendation on the best railway trip for first-time travelers? That’s a no-brainer.

“The Amtrak California Zephyr line—but take it west from Denver to Oakland. You will enjoy seeing the Rocky Mountains, Colorado River, Salt Lake, and Donner Pass before arrival at your final stop,” says Mitchell.

If you really get bitten by the rail bug, or just want a definitive work on the railroad industry, Mitchell suggests reading The Men Who Loved Trains by Rush Loving.  Among the people profiled in the book is the late Leo Stanley Crane, SEAS BS ’38, a former GW Trustee who is a National Railroad Hall of Fame inductee.

Mitchell also has advice for current GW students.

“Study English and become as proficient in it as you can,” Mitchell says. “Being able to articulate your ideas and results well is an important part of many professions. Correct spelling and grammar add credibility to your written output.”

Mitchell, who often comes back to campus for SEAS events, remains connected to GW, and says that “being part of a large network from one of the country’s better private universities” is a source of pride.

Luckily, it’s easy for him to retain close ties to GW—he’s only a short train ride away on the Metro’s Orange line.

–Buthaina Shukri

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