Paul Schneider always stirred the pot

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, February 21, 2019

The late Paul Schneider, one of the railroad world's most colorful voices, momentarily turns his attention away from a UP freight on Cajon Pass. Greg McDonnell
Most groups of friends have a hangout. Maybe it’s a friendly bar, or a comfortable coffee shop, or someone’s front porch. 

For our motley little crew, it was the rickety old Milwaukee Road depot in Sturtevant, Wis., a village 23 rail miles south of Milwaukee. It was a fine place to watch trains at night. There was an old bench out on the brick platform, there for Amtrak passengers waiting to ride the Milwaukee–Chicago trains. The signals just north of the depot would tell you when something was coming. What I liked best was looking along the double-track straightaway toward Pleasant Prairie, 10 miles to the south. At night you could see the glow of a northbound train’s headlight for a good 15 minutes. 

The other good thing about the Sturtevant depot was that it was off by itself, where we could yell and scream as much as we wanted. That was important, because one member of our little band of brothers was Paul D. Schneider. We called him PDS.

You never knew what the topic would be on a given night — pop music, railroad magazines, movies, psychotherapy — but you’d be guaranteed a few raised voices. That was mostly because of Paul, who bristled with opinions and loved to stir the pot. Paul provoked; we responded in kind. The “we” was usually me; my late friend Michael Stephens, then a marketing honcho at Kalmbach; and Andrew McBride, now a teacher, then an ad sales rep for Trains.

Sturtevant’s been on my mind a lot this week, after hearing the news that Paul died last Friday, February 15, following a decades-long struggle with various complications related to diabetes. Thus did our little railroad world lose one of its most colorful voices.  

There isn’t room on this blog to talk about all the interesting aspects of Paul Schneider’s life, but for this old friend, three stand out:

Amtrak and BN trains mingle at Chicago's Union Avenue tower in a photo from Schneider's article 'What's the Problem Up There, Union?' in October 1981 Trains. Paul D. Schneider
• The writer: When it came to telling railroad stories, Paul had few peers, at least when he was on his game. All you have to do is go back 40 years and read his two breakthrough articles, “What’s the Problem Up There, Union?,” from October 1981 Trains, and “In the Violet Hour,” from March 1983. Both were so good we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave either out when we chose material for the book Great American Railroad Stories, published by Kalmbach in 2014. 

When I go back now and read those articles, I’m astonished all over again by their verve and style. No one had written about railroading quite like this before. They were as close to the New Journalism as Trains ever got, not surprising if you knew how much Paul worshipped Rolling Stone “gonzo” author Hunter S. Thompson.

Schneider's 'In the Violet Hour' (March 1983 Trains), his moving account of the demise of the Rock Island, showed his close identification with working men and women. Paul D. Schneider
Here was writing in a contemporary vernacular, full of the obligatory railfan detail but sparkling with fresh attitude. Over the years, Trains has published thousands of first-rate stories by railroaders writing about their jobs. But no one, in my opinion, has matched “Union’s” heady mix of humor and insight. Paul could teach you a lot about how an old interlocking plant worked, and you’d be laughing your you-know-what off the whole time. 

Paul took a different tack with “Violet Hour,” a grim report from the field about the last throes of the Rock Island. Built mainly on quotes from Rock railroaders he encountered, Paul showed how much he identified with working men and women — a hallmark of his career — yet, amid all the pathos, he kept a clear-eyed view of what was happening. His take on the Rock’s demise was deeply sad, but never sappy.

FastTrack, Schneider's video magazine of the early 1990s, was a bold break from the conventions of railroad videos.
• The videographer: If Paul was a writer first and foremost, it can also be said he became a hell of a video producer. This surprising metamorphosis came partly out of necessity; when Kalmbach closed Trains Illustrated in 1991 it also eliminated Paul’s job as associate editor. When he told me later he was going to launch his own video documentary series, I thought he was nuts.

Of course, he proved me — and a few other people — completely wrong. Somehow he raised enough money to get his FastTrack video series off the ground. Then he proceeded to blow my mind with how good it was. I’d seen a lot of railroad video by then, most of it not very compelling, frankly. FastTrack was different. Each program was built on short 15- to 20-minute segments, tightly edited to a very fast pace. Rather than lean on endless scenes of passing trains narrated by droning repetitions of diesel models, train designations, and milepost numbers, FastTrack told actual stories, in the manner of a broadcast documentary. Real people talking! Imagine!

Schneider followed FastTrack with a long-running series of "On Location" programs, which he produced as companions to articles in Trains.
For his next act, Paul pulled a rabbit out of his hat. Wisely avoiding me, he went straight to my boss, Publisher Russ Larson, and convinced Kalmbach to take on a new series for Trains called “On Location,” a project in which a one-hour video would be matched with a story in the magazine, focusing on great railroad locations across the U.S. and Canada.

I was skeptical. I’d been Trains’ editor for only a couple of years and wasn’t ready for what I feared would be a major distraction, mainly the long hours I’d have to spend in a sound booth doing the voice-over. But Paul was a friend, so I was dutifully supportive, and Russ surprisingly gave it the green light. Over the next few years Paul produced more than 25 “On Location” programs, a miraculous output, its quality confirmed by a slew of Telly Awards. Every time I walk into the Kalmbach library and see the line of gleaming bronze Telly statues, I think of Paul and smile.

There is one bit of necessary disclosure. Throughout the “On Location” series, Paul had two key collaborators: his editor, Barry Mainwood, owner of Milwaukee’s Mainly Editing studio, and Ray Fister, owner of Fifth Floor Recording, where we did the narration. It was Mainwood’s editing that gave “On Location” so much of its snap and crackle. And as a sound guy, Ray Fister is the Geoff Emerick of Milwaukee. Beatles fans will know what that means.

• The Obs Car: You can’t talk about PDS without mentioning the Observation Car, the reliably impolitic discussion group he launched on Yahoo in 1999. It still exists today, including on Facebook. The Obs Car, as everyone calls it, quickly became the go-to place for news, gossip, and critiques of various railfan media. It wasn’t for everyone. With Paul as moderator, the discussions could be brutally frank, and sometimes personal. A lot of people liked that, but a lot didn’t. In the end, Schneider didn’t really care what anyone thought. I guess I’ll give him credit for that.  

Paul’s last years were focused mainly on his interest in film and video, although he did preside over the magazine CTC Board Railroads Illustrated for one very eventful year. It was the desire to make movies that drew Paul out to Los Angeles after 2000, and although he had a love/hate affair with L.A., he never came back to Milwaukee. I missed him a lot those first few years.

Fortunately for Paul, there were two angels late in his life. One was David Styffe, known to many reading this as a gifted photographer and ace graphic designer. David and Paul were a team during that year at CTC Board and became good friends. As Paul’s health gradually failed, it was Dave who made a point of visiting PDS as often as possible in the rehabilitation hospital where Paul lived, reminding him he still had a lot of friends out there. Dave’s generosity was remarkable.

Then there was Paul Rathkamp, Schneider’s railfan buddy from Milwaukee. PDS always called him “PR.” Rathkamp is a big-hearted guy who never forgets a friend, even one with whom he often had titanic arguments. That was the way it was with Schneider. But PR stuck with PDS and in recent years assumed what could be called legal guardianship, seeing to Schneider’s personal and financial affairs throughout a long and difficult illness. Everyone should have a friend like Paul Rathkamp.

I won’t be going back to Sturtevant anytime soon. The rickety old Milwaukee depot is gone anyway, declared a historic local relic and moved some years ago to a park a few miles away, far from the tracks. No endless tangent to look south along. No signals to read. No crews to wave to. No Paul Schneider to argue with. A place best left alone. 

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