Fred Frailey rediscovers his roots

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, June 12, 2017

Fred Frailey comes from a family of newspaper folk. The career journalist and lifelong railfan has been a leading rail reporter for 40 years.
My good friend Fred Frailey probably won’t be offended if I say he’s my second-favorite railroad writer. That’s because his No. 1 is the same as mine: David P. Morgan, of course, the longtime editor of Trains. As Fred has often said (and I’m proud to repeat), “I graduated from the David P. Morgan School of Journalism.”

But I’m being honest when I say Fred is a close second. The man is that good. As a railroad writer, he’s a stylist in the manner of all great magazine scribes, our own Frank Deford or Gay Talese, if you will. As a reporter, he’s exhaustive and fearless. And as a student of the railroad game, well . . . when I called him this week he was deep into his computer, working out the kinks of a dispatching program, trying to plumb the intricacies of the Rio Grande out of Grand Junction, Colo., circa mid-1970s.

Fred’s railroad oeuvre is hard to beat: dozens of bylines in Trains, many of them cover stories; a monthly column (and attendant blog) in Trains; and numerous books, including such classics as Twilight of the Great Trains and Blue Streak Merchandise.

I got to know Fred in the late 1980s, when I came to Trains as an associate editor. In those days Fred’s magazine career was already soaring. He was deputy editor of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, a slick, authoritative, Washington, D.C.-based national magazine, and would soon become editor in chief. As I got to know Fred, I was amazed at how he could toss around facts about mutual funds as easily as he could the equipment on the 1948 Texas Chief.

My boss at Trains, Editor Dave Ingles, thought enough of Fred to give him 24 pages in the November 1989 issue, probably 25,000 words, called “Powder River Country,” a sprawling, comprehensive report illustrated with photos by the late Gary Benson.

But long before Fred made a name for himself in magazines, he was a newspaperman, a title he still proudly wears. I don’t know if it’s still true, but once upon a time, working on a daily newspaper was the ultimate apprenticeship for any kind of writer. I think some of my friends over at Trains, including Editor Jim Wrinn and columnist Don Phillips, would second that notion.

A small sampling of Frailey's landmark articles in 'Trains' over the years.
Now fans of Fred’s writing can share some of his earlier newspaper experiences in a wonderful new blog he has created called Newspaper Days, at https://newspaperdays.com

In the blog, Fred takes us back to the 1960s, a wilder and woolier era when he cut his teeth in four different newsrooms.

His first was his own family’s newspaper, the Daily News-Telegram of Sulphur Springs, Texas, Fred’s hometown. From his experience growing up there, you get the impression the smell of ink in his dad’s office registered with him just as much as the exhaust of Cotton Belt GP20s roaring through town.

The blog divides Fred’s experiences into four sections, covering all his daily newspaper stints. He got his start at the Daily News-Telegram, of course, after which a journalism education at the University of Kansas led to internships and part-time jobs at both the Kansas City Star and the Dallas Times-Herald. Interestingly, one of Fred’s predecessors at KU’s William Allen White School of Journalism was the great Wally Abbey, one-time Trains staffer and legendary railroad p.r. man.

Fred capped off his career with six years at the illustrious Chicago Sun-Times, a classic big-city tabloid at a time when Chicagoans still had four daily newspapers: the Sun-Times, Tribune, Daily News, and American.

I’m especially jealous of Fred’s years at the Sun-Times. When I got out of journalism school at Michigan State in 1973, one of my dreams was to work in Chicago. My parents raised us to know who Ben Hecht was, and I fantasized about prowling the same streets Hecht did before writing his epic play The Front Page. (For a wonderful treatment of the play, rent the Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell comedy His Girl Friday.)

Fred got to live that life for a while, as you’ll discover in the blog. He was hired for $112.50 a week by a Chicago newspaper legend, the dashing blueblood Jim Hoge, in 1966 serving as city editor but later to become editor in chief and publisher, with six Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure. Hoge, now 81, went on to edit the prestigious Foreign Affairs.

Fred got lucky early on. Like a lot of young reporters, he was dispatched to a suburban bureau, in northwest Mount Prospect, there to go to cover public meetings, chase the occasional police car, or otherwise be ready to dash out for whatever constituted breaking news. I think Fred’s favorite thing about the bureau was his office view of the Chicago & North Western.

You’ll enjoy reading about Fred’s experiences in the Sun-Times newsroom, filled with Damon Runyonesque characters who smoked and drank as hard as they reported.  

“[It was] the perfect place for a kid like me to learn how to compete in the big leagues,” Fred writes. “It had the hungriest and most talented staff of reporters, and the editors who knew how to deploy them. We were every bit the Trib’s equal in quality, and could even imagine (in some distant time) overtaking the Other Paper in circulation.”

I’m sure Fred and I share the same wistfulness about what’s happened to newspapers over the past 20 years. Happily for us, Fred’s still out there, creating great copy about everything from Hunter Harrison to intermodal traffic to Auto-Train. But if you want to know the real Fred, the one that made all his adventures on the high iron possible, go back to his newspaper roots. Go to his blog. You’ll have a lot of fun. 

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