The M7 Priest is back in Schenectady.
A 2-foot-long test model of the self-propelled tank destroyer arrived in the city Saturday, and its owner had a special story to tell.
“We were called 'the city that kept a secret,’” said Beverly Lentz Taylor Geiger, an 88-year-old Kentucky woman who arrived at the Alco Heritage Museum on Saturday to share the story of her days working at the American Locomotive Co.
She brought with her the model M7 Priest, a tank her father designed for Alco in 1942. Employees were tightlipped about product development back then, when railroad plants across the country were all competing for the same government contracts.
The Schenectady company sought out her father, William L. Lentz, at the start of World War II. He was working for the New York Central Railroad, but the war effort was changing people’s priorities everywhere and he agreed to move to the Electric City.
With no college education, Lentz was a brilliant man who served as a pilot in World War I and would later move up the ranks to serve as Alco’s vice president and the mastermind behind the M7 Priest.
Geiger was fresh out of school when she joined Alco as a “gopher” in 1942, delivering mail. The plant was continually growing and in desperate need of another comptometer operator, and it wasn’t long before she filled the post, which she described as “technical and very exciting.”
“I kept a physical inventory of all the products, all of the steel, everything that was used to build the tanks,” she said from her wheelchair in front of video cameras Saturday. The museum recorded her interview for its Oral History Project, which documents the stories of people who once worked for Alco.
In her first year at Alco, she had the opportunity to christen the first tank off the assembly line. Her former classmates were always asking about the “Schenectady tanks,” so when they visited they would go on test rides together through mud puddles, up hills and over rough roads.
Wartime was exciting, Geiger said with some apprehension.
“It sounds unusual to say, but the people were marvelous and Schenectady was almost like the melting pot for servicemen back home,” she said. “They all seemed to come here.”
It was a different atmosphere. Women were doing men’s work at the plants. Everyone was eager to hear from the servicemen who arrived in town, she said. And the city seemed to move at an urgent, cooperative pace, with hordes of men and women all proudly working toward the same goal.
She still looked proud in describing those days seven decades later.
When museum Director Jim Cesare thanked her for coming all the way from her home in Louisville, she coyly waved him off.
“I think this is the most wonderful thing that’s going to happen to Schenectady in a long time,” said Geiger, looking around her at the museum’s exhibits and artifacts.
The model M7 Priest now sits on top of a wooden pedestal in front of an M-47 Patton tank. It’s been in Geiger’s family from the very beginning, and in 1970 her eldest son took it to Iowa, where he attempted to restore it to its former glory.
“It was rather in shambles,” she said with a chuckle. “He revamped it, and it is a working model again, particularly after they put in the turret where the gun can go around.”
Geiger also brought along two big boxes of Alco artifacts for the museum.
“I’m so proud of what the American Locomotive Co. achieved during the war,” she said. “I’m so happy that there’s a live museum in Schenectady, where it should be, and I think that with the company no longer in existence, it’s a form of history that should definitely be kept alive.”
More of Geiger’s stories will soon be available as part of the museum’s Oral History Project.