Journalism / New Haven Register

Engineer’s models on display

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
May 5, 2008

NORTH BRANFORD — Retired heavy equipment operating engineer Bob Fitch’s passion for building models of machinery began nearly 50 years ago when his wife, Joan, was pregnant with their first child.

He took the hobby up as “something to do nights,” he said, and started out building models of the machinery he had operated on the job.

Now, more than 100 of Fitch’s models are on display at the headquarters of Local 478, Connecticut Chapter of the International Union of Operating Engineers on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden. He still has about 160 completed models in his home waiting for new cases to be installed at the union building, plus 27 in various stages of assembly.

The models cover dozens of types of heavy machinery, from historic to modern equipment. Many are miniature, while others — mainly cranes with long booms — stand as tall as a person.

Fitch, 70, who lives in the Northford section, said that he decided to donate the models after his wife died last year. She had encouraged him to give the collection to the union.

“She was the reason I was able to do everything and have such a full career,” he said. “She passed away almost a year ago now and I said, ‘You know, she’s right, I’m going to (donate) it.’ ”

They were married for 45 years and had four children. Fitch now has eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

With an ongoing renovation of the local’s headquarters, union officials have added glass display cases to accommodate Fitch’s work and plan to expand the display areas.

“That gave me an opportunity to share them with the rest of the members,” he said. “They can relate to, ‘Oh, I ran that back when.’ ”

Fitch calls himself a “kit basher,” meaning that he uses the pieces that come in kits but reconfigures them to make them “more realistic, more American.” He also custom-builds some models from scratch.

Some of the pieces are worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, but Fitch does not sell them.

Since retiring in 2004, Fitch has maintained “active retiree” status in the union, serving on the local’s executive board and filling in on jobs when necessary.

That level of activity is amazing given the events that precipitated his retirement. In February 2000, Fitch was working at a construction site in Milford when the steel building frame collapsed on top of his crane. He was pinned under the debris for eight hours and doctors had to remove part of his right leg.

Two other workers died in the accident.

Fitch now uses a prosthetic leg and can operate many machines, although not all.

“I went back to work one year later,” he said. “I was never supposed to walk again.”

Dave Moakley, the local’s government relations representative, called Fitch “an inspiration.”

“He’s one of the most upbeat, positive persons I’ve ever met,” Moakley said. “He always has a good word for you; he’s always been a friend.”

Local 478 business agent Chris Cozzi said he had visited Fitch’s workshop at his home in the past, but did not know the extent of his collection.

“The people that don’t really know what we do that come in, whether it’s attorneys or consultants for technology, things like that, it allows us to give everyone a good feel of what the heavy equipment is all about,” Cozzi said. “There’s a huge historical value to some of those.”

Cozzi added that some of the models, in particular the cranes, can be used for training because they disassemble in the same way that real cranes do.

“(Bob) gets a lot of enjoyment out of this and his collection, and for him it’s a matter of sort of passing that on,” Cozzi said.

Fitch has been able to continue other hobbies including skydiving, scuba diving and restoring old pieces of heavy machinery at his home. He has his pilot’s license and builds airplane models in addition to the bulldozers and backhoes.

He also has a collection of hundreds of heavy machinery watch fobs, which feature motifs of different kinds of equipment, that he hopes to donate to the local.

During his career, Fitch worked on famous local projects like the New Haven Coliseum as well as far-flung work including oil pipelines in Alaska.

“I’ve had a very, very fortunate career,” he said.

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