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Print found in former Air Brake wall connects man to his deceased father

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WATERTOWN — Peter D. Outwater remembers the special bond that his father and his friends enjoyed while working at the old New York Air Brake plant decades ago, and how the railroad brake manufacturer played a role in his and other local families for decades.

Those memories returned a few weeks ago when he saw an old print that the group of friends in Air Brake’s maintenance department hid inside a wall at the plant more than 60 years ago.

The print shows five men planning a fox hunt. His father’s name, Richard “Dick” Outwater, was written in pencil on the print, along with the names of his four best friends. Mr. Outwater, 65, never knew the print existed until he got a call about two weeks ago from a friend, Pat Fields, a local plumber who knows a lot about the Air Brake plant’s history.

“He asked me if I had any relatives who worked at Air Brake,” Mr. Outwater said. “‘Yeah, my father did.’ He asked me his name, and I told him.”

His father was a carpenter who worked at Air Brake for almost 40 years until he retired in the early 1970s. He died in 1992 at age 83. The print soon will be given to Mr. Outwater.

Those days at Air Brake were a special time in his father’s life, Mr. Outwater said. The five friends worked together for decades and probably placed the print inside the wall in the executive offices on Aug. 15, 1951, the date that appears on the print. Above the date appear the words, “The Master Minds,” apparently a reference to the five co-workers, Mr. Outwater said.

He got a laugh out of it, speculating that the five characters in the print symbolized his father and friends. He imagined that the friends put the print inside the wall as a joke or an impromptu time capsule.

“They were all really close,” Mr. Outwater said. “My father mentioned them many times.”

Instead of the bigwigs who ran the company, maybe they saw themselves as Air Brake’s masterminds, since it was the carpenters and maintenance workers who got things done, Mr. Fields said.

Construction workers discovered the print two years ago when they demolished the office wall during construction at the former Air Brake plant, now the Watertown Center for Business and Industry at 800 Starbuck Ave.

The workers turned it over to William J. Soluri, the industrial center’s site manager. For nearly two years, the names on the print and exactly why it ended up in the wall posed a mystery, he said.

The print appears to have been sent as a holiday greeting card from the G.H. Tennant Company, a Minneapolis, Minn., floor cleaning equipment manufacturer that did business with Air Brake, Mr. Soluri said.

Unsure what to do with the print but realizing it was probably worth saving, Mr. Soluri kept it in his office, where it remained for the past two years, until three weeks ago.

By coincidence, he mentioned the print to Mr. Fields, who saw his friend’s last name and immediately called Mr. Outwater. So that part of the mystery was solved.

“I thanked Pete a hundred times,” Mr. Outwater said. “I really miss my dad. He was a great guy. I never heard anyone say a bad word about him.”

Mr. Fields recognized the other four names. He presumed the men are no longer living and has no idea of their living relatives’ whereabouts, he said. “It was all a fluke that Bill showed it me,” Mr. Fields said.

Scott A. Paris and Michael J. Mitchell, owners of P&M Construction, used sledge hammers and other hand tools to demolish that wall when they saw a piece of cardboard containing the print between the wall’s studs. They removed it and waited until day’s end to look at it closely before realizing what it was, Mr. Paris said. “We thought it was a timepiece,” he said.

In the 1950s, it seemed like everyone in Watertown had a family member or knew someone who worked at Air Brake, Mr. Soluri said. About 2,500 employees worked in a series of long buildings where the automatic train brakes were manufactured.

“It was like family,” Mr. Soluri said. “The print symbolizes Air Brake’s ties to the community.”

That’s the way Mr. Outwater remembered the Air Brake where his father worked. As a boy, he recalled how his father went to work an hour early at 6:30 a.m. to play cards with his co-workers.

Over the years, Air Brake’s workforce fluctuated, and the local plant changed hands twice. It’s now owned by the German company Knorr-Bremse, which purchased it in 1991.

Much of the sprawling 450,000-square-foot plant and its series of buildings have been torn down. The remaining structures have been transformed into a small-business incubator for fledgling companies. In 1995, Air Brake moved into a 237,000-square-foot building next door at 748 Starbuck Ave.

Mr. Outwater is the rightful owner of the print, Mr. Soluri said. That’s why he intends to frame it and present it to Mr. Outwater.

“I don’t have much of my father’s anymore,” Mr. Outwater said. “It means so much to me.”

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