Kristina (Tina) Hook was born in 1945 and raised on Lobsterville Road above her parents’ antique shop in Aquinnah, and has lived back on-Island since 2000 in tribal housing. She is a revered Wampanoag tribal elder, though she likes to say she has “two tribes” because she’s Jewish on her father’s side. Growing up, Tina accompanied her dad, who “collected and dealt in all kinds of ephemera,” on visits to flea markets and paper shows. She has many collections, and interesting art all over her home. She riffles through her railroad collection of First Day of Issue stamps on envelopes, a love fostered by her father, and explains an RPO is a “Railroad Post Office” that would collect a bag of mail from one town, cancel the stamps, and drop the bag at the next town. “I have an old metal train,” she said, “and buttons from old train uniforms.” When Tina started collecting railroad memorabilia as a young girl, she had no idea of the role the railroad would play in her life as she grew older.
Tina’s father moved their family to Sandwich when he found steady work as a police officer when she was 16. At 18, she attended Katherine Gibbs College for two years. At 21, Tina was married to her high school sweetheart, and they moved to Pennsylvania for his work. She had two daughters, ages 3 and 5, when she separated from her husband and began working full-time “pitching human services for the County Commissioners Association.”
In 1980, Tina, a single mother, was working in Harrisburg, Pa., when she discovered her neighbor was making $5,000 a year more than she, clerking for the railroad. To get a raise at a commissioner’s job, she was told she needed to get a master’s degree. Tina took the test for the railroad and scored in the top 3 percent. “They were being forced to hire women and minorities,” Tina said. She was both.
Three and a half years after being hired by the Reading Railroad, Tina was qualified in 13 different jobs. She was a “casual worker,” she said, meaning “you were on call until you got your 40 hours a week. I was promoted and became a dispatcher, and also worked ‘casual’ in another union and another department.”
Tina, hired as a clerk, “wanted to be on the ground [not in the office] because that’s where the money was.” She said, “It was a good nine years before I held down a steady job, and by then I was qualified to work on almost 5,000 miles of track, and they couldn’t turn me down, and they had to make me a boss.” Tina worked for Reading Railroad for 20 years. Only one woman before her (25 years prior) had been promoted, though her dad was the supervisor for that division.
Tina said there were “fights about her ability.” When Reading became part of Conrail, three years after her hire, “they were taking federal money, and that’s why I got promoted.” Tina says she then “became a Reading Co. ‘c_nt’ because I was the only woman on an 81-man roster for seven years. A couple of other women tried, but didn’t cut it.” I ask about any abuse she may have experienced. “There was nobody to go to,” she said; “my union man was scared of me, he never had a woman member before.”
When Tina was doing track work 12 miles off the highway in the woods, she asked to have a porta-potty, and they told her she could go in the woods like everybody else, and she said, “No, I can’t.”
Tina found a handful of older men who were willing to show her the ropes; however, the young guys saw her as a threat. Since she was the only woman in the office, her boss thought Tina should be making the coffee. “One night I got really angry,” she said, and lifted up her shirt and said, “Listen, just because I have these doesn’t mean I make the coffee. I don’t drink all the coffee, so I’m not making all the coffee.”
“My mother didn’t swear,” Tina said, “I think it would have killed her. When I hired on the railroad, my mother just said, ‘So unladylike.’” When Tina retired, she was a “chief dispatcher, running between 5,000 and 6,000 miles of railroad up on a raised desk, with an assistant general manager and six guys. By the time I left I had a quad-screen computer, I was in charge of the heavy and light repair shops, I had track gangs to work with, I was responsible for my customers like Dupont and Hershey Chocolate and worked with their expediters.”
During these years, Tina still had her children at home, and her favorite shift was a graveyard shift, 11 pm to 7 am. Tina and her kids shared a house with another railroad woman, who worked from 3 to 11 pm. Before heading home in the morning, Tina went to the railroad bar across the street, where “all the problems of the day would be worked out.” Her roommate would get the kids ready for school, then Tina would head home, get six hours sleep, and be ready to greet her kids when they came home from school, have dinner with them, and even go to bed when they did, getting another hour or two of sleep before heading to work. Tina is proud of her time on the railroad, and says she made $200 a day, allowing her to provide for her children and put them through college without any debt.
Tina tells me, “I always wanted to come home [to Aquinnah].” That’s what she did in 2000, immediately after she retired, and she brought her second husband, Ted (Theodore Leslie Jr.), “a big barrel-chested railroader,” home with her. She’d been his boss. “He hauled general freight as a conductor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg,” Tina said. “I was the first woman in the dispatch office in 30 years, and he calls me from Harrisburg and says, ‘Hey honey, let me talk to the chief,’ and I said, ‘You are.’ Then he says, ‘Now stop f_cking around, I need to talk to the chief.’ I gave him a pregnant pause, and told him, ‘I’m the chief, and you’re gonna have to talk to me, and if you don’t want to talk to me I’ll call your union man.’ He’s got two brakemen and an engineer with him, and says, ‘I’ve got this b_tch on the phone, she says she’s the chief, what do I do?’”
He comes back on the line and tells her, “‘We’re all extra and want you to put us on a passenger train to Philadelphia so we can get home, and be put back on the list.’ And I said, ‘That’s not gonna happen, you need to check into a hotel and get rest.’ He tells me, ‘I forgot my grip [a metal box with a change of clothes, tools, and something to eat], and my guys forgot their underwear.’ I told him, ‘I could take you out of service right now. I know you’re lying. I have a better idea; you’re going to the hotel and I’m going to be done here in about two hours and I’ll drive to the hotel and front you a twenty, I’ll leave it at the front desk, you tell me what size underwear your engineer wears and I’ll buy a package at the K-Mart and you can reimburse me on your next trip.’ ‘Oh Jesus,’ Leslie said, ‘she wants to buy me underwear and give me money, what do I say now?’ That’s how we met. I bet you I talked to 8,000 men on the radio or the phone I never laid my eyes on.”
Ted and Tina did not get together right away; she admits he continued to be rude to her, but he was a good worker. One night he called her, and it was early. Tina was working a second shift on a vacation, and she offered to meet Ted at his hotel and go out for a drink with him, her treat.
She explained, “I told him, ‘I’m no threat to you, you’re a good worker and we’d get more done if we worked together.’ When I pulled into the hotel parking lot, he sent someone out to see if I was cute or not, and he didn’t tell me this till years later. Had I known, I would have made his life miserable. I was 36 and he was 28. He was separated, living with his brother in Philadelphia, and when we started dating it never stopped. We went to railroad bars wherever we were.” Ted and Tina enjoyed 16 years together on the Vineyard before he died in May 2016.
Tina is a trailblazer, outspoken and fearless; one can’t help but fall under her spell. Long before the “me too” movement, she was standing up for herself and rising to the top in the workplace — because she’s tough as they come and has a heart of gold.
The railroad is only one part of Tina’s remarkable life. Join her for one of her foraging walks or native plant talks, offered through the Aquinnah Cultural Council and Sustainable Martha’s Vineyard. You can watch a foraging talk with Tina at https://vimeo.com/18094350.