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Volunteer is on track to save lives

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When they called her name out Tuesday at the International Operation Lifesaver convention at the Little America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, Beverly Thrall knew exactly what to do.

She stopped, looked and listened.

It isn't every day that the organization you've given your life to gives its highest volunteer award back to you. For an Operation Lifesaver workhorse, it gets no more laudatory than this: the F. Tom Roberts Memorial Award.

Tom Roberts was the Idahoan who years ago started Operation Lifesaver as a counteroffensive to tragedies at railroad crossings. As legend has it, Tom used to go to schools to talk about crossing safety armed with packs of candy Lifesavers. The kids got lots of cavities, but no collisions with trains.

The idea to preach train track safety was so simple and the cause was so pure that soon enough the message moved out of Idaho and embraced every state in the union as well as Canada and Mexico. Today, there are chapters of Operation Lifesaver just about everywhere there's a working train system.

This week, delegates from all those chapters, more than 400 strong, are in Salt Lake City for their annual international gathering.

They came here to discuss innovations in rail crossing safety, to compare notes on the best way to get the message across to the public and, of course, to honor this year's recipient of the Tom Roberts Memorial Award.

Luckily for all concerned, Bev Thrall wasn't too busy, for at least this once, to stand still for a minute and soak up the praise.

Asked the secret to her popularity, Beverly, a lifelong Salt Lake City resident, said she's not sure, but if she had to guess she'd say it's her willingness to do whatever they ask whenever they ask it.

If they asked her to sit on the train tracks and juggle chain saws, she'd at least be willing to give it a try.

She's been an office assistant, she's been a presenter, she's critiqued presentations, you name it, she's done it. Currently she's the materials coordinator for the Utah chapter of Operation Lifesaver, and all this week she's helped staff the registration desk at the hotel.

If Bev worked by the hour, Operation Lifesaver couldn't afford her. Nobody could.

She does it because she believes in the cause. Believes in it passionately.

It dates back 21 years to a booth at the Utah State Fair. Bev was working as a volunteer at the Union Pacific Railroad exhibit (her husband Mel worked for Union Pacific for 41 years) where she was given some Operation Lifesaver material to hand out.

In her idle moments she read the literature. She read about the excessive number of deaths and injuries every year due to crossing accidents. She read about trains and their stopping requirements (a mile and a half if they're fully loaded). She read about the fact that virtually all of the crossing accidents are avoidable if people would just stay off the tracks and not try to outrun or outmaneuver trains.

She signed up as a volunteer then and there — jumped on board, as it were — and she's never signed off.

It gives her a good feeling to be involved, she says.

"If I can be influential in saving just one life, just one, then it will all be worth it."

If that means a lifetime of nagging, well, so be it.

"Look, listen and live," says the Operation Lifesaver volunteer of the year. That's been her mantra for 21 years and will continue to be for another 21 if she can help it.

Look, listen and live. It isn't rocket science, but it works.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.