816 North

Young model railroader earns top honor early

A Parkville teenager has ridden the rails of success and permanently etched his name in the record books of one of the world’s most beloved hobbies.

Earlier this year, 13-year-old Joel Priest achieved the top honor in the model railroad industry.

The unassuming 7th grader at Lakeview Middle School earned the rare distinction of Master Model Railroader.

“I always want to be doing something,” Joel says. “And this (achievement) means that I’ve actually done something important. I’ve focused on it and got it done.”

The National Model Railroad Association awards the prestigious MMR title to people who demonstrate superior skills in seven of 11 disciplines, including wiring, electrical and building scenery and structures.

“This is a goal most of our members secretly covet,” says Charlie Getz, the association’s president. “It’s a major accomplishment and is harder to obtain than (the rank of) Eagle Scout.”

When Joel earned his Master Model Railroader title in January, he joined a small and elite group of model railroad masters. According to the National Model Railroad Association, only 509 people have the distinction.

Joel is MMR #503.

But his award is significant for another reason — one that makes Joel a legend in this hobby that is reminiscent of simpler times.

The goal-oriented teen was 12 years old when he received his title. He’s the youngest person in the world to achieve that honor.

“It’s phenomenal that a 12-year-old did this,” Getz says. “You don’t associate the level of expertise required to do this with someone his age. He (beat) some of the best modelers in the world.

“This is a very talented and nice young man.”

Just how talented?

Consider all the work that Joel did — by hand — to earn his title. He designed an entire 4-by-8-foot working model railway system. He cut the plywood frame that serves as the base of his V railroad. He made the control panel and wired the tracks. He constructed the buildings, bridges and scenery. And he built and meticulously painted the trains that run on his HO-scale model railroad.

The project was daunting at times, Joel says. But he didn’t let those challenges derail his determination.

“There were a couple of times that I had to motivate myself to get back in the game and keep going,” says Joel. “But my dad helped me (stay motivated).”

His dad has a keen understanding of model railroads and huge locomotives. Stephen Priest is a Master Model Railroader (#377) and designs cars used in the model railroad industry. He’s a former manager for The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and now teaches railroad conductor classes at Johnson County Community College. He also owns Paired Rail Railroad Publications.

Priest recalls the conversation that put Joel on course to earn the coveted prize among model railroad enthusiasts. “He asked me about my MMR,” he says. “And I told him the best way to get his was to build a railroad.”

Joel embarked on his MMR journey when he was 9 years old. He jumped on the fast track and finished three years later.

“That’s a short time to achieve an MMR,” Getz says. “Many people work on their MMR for years; some have spent decades to gain this recognition.”

Joel’s mom isn’t surprised by her son’s success.

“He’s always been a tinkerer,” says Cinthia Priest, another key player in the model railroad industry. She edits three railroad magazines and has written several books about the Santa Fe railroad with her husband.

Joel has other traits that ensured his dream to become a Master Model Railroader would never run off track. He’s smart, clever and was born with an insatiable curiosity about how machines work. He also grew up surrounded by model railroads. “He’s played with trains since he was an infant,” Cinthia Priest says.

What’s next for this driven teenager who has already mastered the world of model railroads?

Joel plans to design and build his own tree house. He wants to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. And he hopes to someday become a storm chaser.

“I’m fascinated by storms,” says Joel, who has several weather apps on his phone.

In the meantime, he’s content to work with his model railroads, fly his remote control airplane, watch the television show “Duck Dynasty,” and listen to music


The young rock-and-roller’s favorite bands include The Alan Parson’s Project, The Police, Boston, The Who, Styx, and Fleetwood Mac.

Asked what message he has for anyone who’d like to take up model railroading, Joel says: “Many people think this (hobby) is child’s play. This is a tough hobby. But if you become involved in this, you can learn so much. And you can make some pretty amazing things.”