Often it takes seeing things through a child’s eyes to truly see wonder and opportunity. For Stacey Walthers Naffah, mother of two and fourth generation at Wm. K. Walthers, Inc., it was her son Jack who helped open her eyes to the magic of storytelling through trains.
Walthers Naffah didn’t need education on trains as her family owned business, Walthers has operated in the toy and hobby train world here in Milwaukee since 1932. What she needed was a bit more inspiration.
So when Jack asked his mom to go see Thomas the Tank Engine live and download numerous episodes and apps based on Thomas and other similar wooden train sets, Walthers Naffah knew that her company had to think creatively about how to engage the next generation of engineers.
Today, in anticipation of this weekend’s Trainfest and, of course, the big toy buying holiday season, Walthers is debuting Thunderrail, a new digital comic book based on the company’s 1940s mascot, Willie.
"While many people may perceive the model railroading is an ‘old’ hobby, I see quite the opposite – there are many opportunities to engage with people today, along various stages of their lives. The fundamentals of creating, building and imagining that our hobby has embodied over its long history are sound principles that are as relevant today as ever," said Walthers Naffah, Walthers’ head of marketing and sales.
The popularity of trains with kids is everywhere today. Thomas the Tank Engine, Dinosaur Train, Chuggington, The Polar Express and emerging brands like Choo Choo Bob.
Thunderrail was conceived to appeal to this crowd of TV trains kids and "invite them on an adventure that keeps their interest in what it is that we do," said Walthers Naffah. Designed by Drew Maxwell, a Milwaukee-based freelance illustrator, comic book creator, concept artist, feature-film screenwriter, producer, and director, Thunderrail represents "the fundamental values of the company and of the hobby of model railroading, too."
Via Thunderrail, Walthers is bringing Willie back to tell stories to today’s youth. Willie is the lead character in the comic book. He is joined by his magic engine, Sparks, and his good friend Mike and others. Together, like in most kids’ stories, there are no obstacles they cannot overcome, no adventure too daunting. Stories focus on overcoming obstacles through finding positive, constructive solutions as a team.
"As a mom of young kids, I want to know that what they are doing online and offline is consistent with our family values. Encouraging imagination and constructive problem solving, whether through building something tangible or reading something imagined – those are activities I can get behind. It’s in that spirit that I am excited to introduce Willie and his Thunderrail gang to families. Inside the world of Thunderrail and by building a model train layout, your kids (and you!) can engineer your own world. What could be neater than that?"
Visit the Walthers booth at Trainfest to receive a mini printed comic that gets the story started. Attendees can have their picture taken with a giant cut out of the comic’s main characters. After the show, additional pages for the comic will be added weekly at thunderrail.com.
"I’m ferociously committed to bringing the train story to kids. Thunderrail is about great stories, and as a parent you might as well know what your kids are reading online is good," concluded Walthers Naffah.
A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.
He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.
Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.
He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.
He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.