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Washington Post

CLOSE TO HOME Section

Ray of Sunshine in the Underground; Metro's Wilbert Dietrich coaxes smiles out of a tough crowd.

May 25, 1996

If you ride Metro, you are familiar with the "Metro shell."

You know, the hard-boiled apathetic exterior we all don as soon as we begin our descent of that first set of escalators.

Stay to the right for resting, left if you're in a hurry. Have exact change and your dollar bills straight before your turn at the card machine. Move it. No drinking, no eating, no smoking, no music without headphones.

Don't strike up conversations, don't make eye contact -- stare at the floor, at your paper or at that fascinating spot just above everybody's head.

Not much penetrates the Metro shell. Sneeze, and odds are you'll go unblessed. Smile at a member of the opposite sex, and you'll get indifference. Black, brown, white, yellow -- we are all separate but equal underground.

Then comes the sonorous voice.

"Reeeeeeeed line!"

The voice on the PA is spirited, ebullient even.

"Duuuuuuupooooooooont Cir-kel! Dontforgetcher Uuuuuuuuum-brellas.

A few snickers, some titters, even a laugh are heard in the otherwise silent car. People make eye contact. You can almost hear the shells cracking. "Is this guy crazy?" their looks say.

"Nextstationnnnnnn . . . Woodley Park.

"Naaaaaaaational Zoo!"

Two serious young professional women, who were buried in the newspaper (the A section of The Post, of course), look up and give decidely unprofessional giggles. Wilbert Dietrich has done it again.

Dietrich has worked for D.C. Transit for 27 years, first as a bus driver, then a station manager, before finding his true calling 10 years ago as, for my money, the best Metro train operator in the system.

Every workday morning he leaves his home in Germantown in time to get to the station by 4:40 a.m. He drives the first Metro train of the day out of Shady Grove at 5:28 a.m.

"That first one's packed," he says. "You wouldn't believe it."

"Farraguuuuuuut . . . (lengthy pause) . . . Noooooorth."

"You gotta have a sense of humor to operate a train," Dietrich explains. "There's a lot of stress and tension."

Dietrich comes from a family in which a sense of humor was clearly important: Wilbert's eight brothers are named Filbert, Hubert, Gilbert, Herbert, Norbert, Robert, Albert and Charles. All were born at home, in Pittsburgh, where his father worked as a milkman and then as an organizer for the Teamsters.

"Met-tro Cen-tah!" Dietrich intones, emphasizing each syllable.

"Trans-fah to the bluuuuue . . . (longish pause) . . . AND the orange -- lower level."

Dietrich moved down to the District after leaving the Army in 1960, where he served with Elvis Presley at Fort Hood, Tex., and then with the Third Armored Division in Germany. He has five daughters, four grandchildren and five sons-in-law "who are the greatest"; most live in the area, none takes the red line.

"Top o'the morning!" Dietrich crows over the PA system.

"TGIF! It's Friday, and you've made it through the week!"

He doesn't always break through the Metro shell, mind you. This is Washington, where even Dietrich admits, "there are a lot of long faces." But that doesn't stop him. On gorgeous, sunny days, he sometimes reminds his riders that they ought to live a little -- carpe diem, after all.

"Go OUT for lunch," he admonishes them.

"It's a NICE DAY for a walk in the park.

"Do it!

"Havagooday."

Sometimes he's a poet too, as well as a guidance counselor, twisting station stops into song, playing with the names of neighborhoods. He can make "Judiciary Square" sound as melodic as "Strawberry Fields."

"Hold tight! Here we go," he says. "Next station . . . Gaaaaaaaaaaallery Place!"

An uptight suit stops wrestling with his Times for a moment and tries -- unsuccessfully -- to suppress a smile.

A man who is 90 percent beard, wearing a red tie probably purchased when Ed Meese was attorney general, cracks up and nudges his wife.

"Next stop, Uuuuuuuuion Staaaashun!

"TGIF!"

Unlike bus drivers, train ticket punchers and cabbies, Metro conductors are heard but not seen. But this hasn't stopped Dietrich from making an impression. He is not only distinctive in an anonymous system, he has a following. Dietrich modestly acknowledges that one or two people a week run up to him and thank him.

"I think you're the greatest," they say. "Your happy voice made my day."

"I make the best of the situation and what I got," Dietrich says. It's the good luck of his riders, normally encased in their Metro shells, that Dietrich makes the best of their situation too.

-- Jake Tapper