Bill Withuhn: An appreciation

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bill Withuhn, the Smithsonian Institution's transportation curator for 27 years, poses on that part of the museum's biggest exhibit: Southern Railway Ps-4 No. 1401. Withuhn died June 29, 2017.
In November 2009, author Pete Hansen wrote a profile of Smithsonian transportation curator William L. Withuhn for Trains magazine. It was a sprawling story about a sprawling career, suitably titled “The Indispensable Man.”

Quite a claim to make about someone, but in the case of Bill Withuhn, it fit. There were so many things to call him: historian, museum professional, locomotive engineer, dealmaker, bureaucrat, journalist. He was a supreme multi-tasker long before it became an everyday term.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Bill over the past few days, ever since hearing last week that he had died June 29 at age 75. I was happy to know that his passing came peacefully at home, in the presence of family, in the Sierra foothills in Burson, Calif.

I’m not alone when I say that Bill was, indeed, indispensable to a lot of us in this business. Bill and I worked with each other only sporadically, but every time it was rewarding, enlightening, and most of all, fun.

That was definitely true of our first encounter. In 1974, Bill wrote a provocative feature for Trains entitled, “Did We Scrap Steam Too Soon?” As a young steam partisan, I was transfixed by Bill’s analysis, and wanted to believe that the answer to the question in the headline was “yes.” But intellectual rigor and simple honesty compelled Bill to make a more mature, nuanced conclusion. “Make no bones about it,” he wrote, “only a fool would deny the relative superiority of the diesel over most of its steam competition.” That got my attention.

One day in July 1975 my phone rang in the Sales Department at Kalmbach. It was Bill, and he wanted to know if I’d like to get together with him. I thought, “Why does this big shot steam writer want to meet me, a lowly 23-year-old ad copywriter?” To this day I can’t recall how Bill even knew who I was, but, of course, I accepted his invitation.

A few days later, August 4, I found myself clambering down to the Chicago & North Western right of way under some highway overpass near Proviso Yard to meet Bill in the company of one of his favorite machines, Southern Pacific Daylight 4-8-4 No. 4449. The engine was beginning its Midwest swing on the point of the American Freedom Train. Soon I spotted a tall, trim guy with a distinctly military bearing. The outstretched handshake and the easy smile were welcoming.

What I remember most about that afternoon — in addition to gawking at the magnificent 4449 — was the way Bill worked the crowd, especially the members of the engine crew and its leader, Doyle McCormack, a good friend of Bill’s. I tended to stay a step back and glean whatever I could from a conversation among superstars.

Years later, after I joined the Trains editorial staff, Bill and I would go on to have a very productive relationship, sometimes as writer to editor, often with him serving only as a background source. We traded ideas for stories and gossiped a bit about the various mainline steam crews.

One of the high points in my years on the magazine was Bill’s “Steam, Steel & Safety,” from the May 2000 issue, an authoritative but highly readable summary of where federal regulations were going. Where they were going, of course, was partly up to him, thanks to his contributions as a member of the blue-ribbon task force charged with updating the FRA’s boiler rules.

One person with a keen interest in the effort was Steve Sandberg, then and now the boss of the Milwaukee Road 261 operation in Minneapolis. Steve came to view Bill as a mentor, and Withuhn later became a member of the board of directors of the Friends of the 261. “With all that talent in the FRA group, Bill often said he wasn’t the top expert on steam technology,” Steve says. “But Bill’s the guy who kept it organized, kept it moving forward.”

Back in the early 1980s, Bill had a similar effect on another group of ambitious young preservationists, working to build in Sacramento what became America’s finest railroad museum. Bill gave valuable help to the team behind the California State Railroad Museum, which opened in 1981.

One of those youngsters was Cathy Taylor, who years later went on to lead both the museum’s support foundation and the museum itself. Today, some 3,000 miles to east, she is the director of museum resources for the Nantucket Historical Association. Cathy fondly remembers her early association with Bill.

“He not only accepted this 20-something young woman, but he treated me as an equal and as a friend, and happily mentored me for the next several decades,” Cathy recalls. “I think it was unique at the time for him to include me without regard to gender or experience — Bill accepted me because he saw in me his same passion for railway preservation.”

Indeed, Bill took his preservation evangelism far beyond his Smithsonian office on the Washington Mall, promulgating a big tent theory of railroad preservation. He wanted to break down the walls that often divide people in the field. As Steve Sandberg puts it, “He’d always say, ‘it’s not about how we divide up the pie, it’s how we make the pie bigger.’”

Kurt R. Bell, archivist with the Pennsylvania State Archives, also learned from the master. “There was no doubt when Bill spoke at a rail history symposium or a conference that he was always the smartest guy in the room,” recalls Kurt. “But he was never one to be content just being in the ivory tower; Bill was a hands-on preservationist.”

For Bill, being hands-on often meant “hands dirty.” I witnessed that on one memorable Sunday in July 1987. My boss, Trains Editor Dave Ingles, had given me a plum assignment: cover the annual NRHS convention, that year in Roanoke featuring N&W 4-8-4 No. 611 and 2-6-6-4 No. 1218. But Bill had arranged for a slight detour before I got to Roanoke, inviting me to join him aboard none other than Pennsylvania Railroad K4s No. 1361, which was running an Altoona–Bellefonte, Pa., round trip.

To see the 1361 in steam would have been enough — like all PRR fans, I grew up worshipping the engine in Grif Teller’s painting On Time — but to have a chance to ride the cab of the burly Pacific? It was an act of unfathomable generosity.

I remember the overwhelming experience of the K4, of course, but what made the biggest impression was the sight of retired Air Force Major W. L. Withuhn taking command. For a few hours, my gregarious friend was all business. There was no time for chit-chat. At times he seemed even a bit grumpy. For much of the return leg from Bellefontaine, a torrential downpour fell, making the rails slippery in spots and demanding all of the hogger’s skills and concentration.

Later that afternoon, though, the sun was back out and a gleaming 1361 came to a stop in the vast Altoona yard. The hard work completed, Bill quickly reverted to his smiling, solicitous self, wondering if I’d had a good time.

That’s the Bill Withuhn I’ll remember. He had a big heart, and he wanted to build a big tent. Like a host of other people who encountered the man, I was happy to come inside.

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