Losing DPM, thirty years on

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, January 10, 2020

Longtime Trains Editor David P. Morgan looks toward the sunset at Canadian Pacific's Dorval, Que., station in 1955. Philip R. Hastings
It still feels like it just happened. Thirty years ago, on a Wednesday afternoon, I was sitting in my office next to my boss, Trains Editor J. David Ingles, and proofing something for the March 1990 issue of the magazine. On the other side of me an impatient Nancy Bartol, our production editor, was probably getting close to rapping both Ingles and me on the knuckles. We were right on top of a deadline.

Suddenly JDI called us into his office. He had an ashen look on his face. Our art director, George Gloff, had just stopped by Dave’s office to tell him David P. Morgan had died.

There was stunned silence. We retreated to our offices to stare emptily out the window. The rest of that day — January 10, 1990 — was a blur. How to contemplate the loss of David, our friend, our longtime boss (in Dave’s and Nancy’s case), and our hero (me)? It seemed impossible. 

We couldn’t mourn for long. Deadlines never go away and we still had a job to do, and now the loss of our friend was news. We all went right to work, JDI huddling with Publisher Russ Larson and the production department to secure the pages we’d need, Nancy rejiggering what we called the dope sheet, and me diving into the photo files to pull images to support Dave’s obituary.

The next two or three days flew by. We found a way to carve out four open pages, Dave filling three of them with his 2,400-word obituary. It was a lovely, affectionate, detailed portrait of a fascinating life, one of the best things Ingles ever wrote, which is saying something. I was charged with filling the fourth page, something easily done once I discovered a heartbreaking poem called For David, Who Went by Train, written for David by Nancy G. Westerfield, complemented perfectly by a haunting photo of DPM by his old pal Phil Hastings.

Thinking back on that day, it occurred to me that all this happened in an era before email and social media. The death of David P. Morgan wasn’t national news. That means the vast majority of Trains readers — just as passionate in their admiration of Morgan as we were — probably didn’t know of his death until they opened their March issue and turned to page 4. I think we could feel the collective shock of 92,000 people.

Even now, I still feel that shock. My own relationship with Dave Morgan went back nearly 20 years, to a time when I was a senior at Michigan State University and president of the MSU Railroad Club. The club had begun a tradition of staging a spring banquet, at which we’d celebrate whatever progress we’d made that year on Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225.

Kevin Keefe (right) presents replica Pere Marquette 1225 builder and trust plates to David P. Morgan at the Michigan State University Railroad Club's annual banquet in 1973. John B. Corns
Sometime that winter of 1972-73, a few of us met to decide whom we might invite to speak at our event. I think I came up with the idea of bringing in a show from a hotshot railroad photographer (Mike Schafer had already been our guest the previous year), or maybe try to get a railroad official from Grand Trunk Western, or Chessie System, or some other Michigan road. Then someone said, “Why not invite David P. Morgan?”

I remember saying, “No way. He’ll never come. We’re too minor league.” In my mind, inviting Morgan was like inviting Mick Jagger.

Shows you what I know. We mustered up the classiest language we could manage and dispatched a letter to 1027 N. Seventh Street, Milwaukee. Not much more than a week later a reply arrived in a Trains No. 10 envelope: “I’d be happy to do it,” wrote Morgan.

There isn’t space here to go into detail, but let the record show that on May 12, 1973, we picked up David and Margaret Morgan at Lansing’s Capital City Airport, where they had arrived aboard a North Central 580 turboprop. That evening, in front of a packed banquet room at the Albert Pick Motel, Morgan delivered a brief but exquisitely wrought speech, hitting all the right notes for his eager, star-struck audience. At the end of the speech, I presented him with a special plaque boasting a replica builder’s and trust plate from the 1225. He seemed genuinely grateful.

Fast-forward 14 months. I was working as a cub reporter on a small Michigan daily, banging away on my battered old Royal one day, when the phone rang. It was a name I recognized: “Hello, this is Bill Akin, vice president of sales at Kalmbach in Milwaukee.” He wanted to know if I was interested in a job opening for an ad copywriter. “Dave Morgan remembered you and suggested I give you a call.”

I picked myself up off the floor, said “yes, I’m interested,” took the train to Milwaukee, and soon got the job. What came next were two wonderful years in which I got to call the whole Kalmbach crew — Morgan, Gloff, JDI, Rosy Entringer, Gil Reid, Schafer, many others — my friends and colleagues. 

I didn’t stay. Ad copywriting wasn’t a career choice, and journalism called me back. But it set the stage for exciting chapters later in life. And all because DPM remembered me.

It’s hard to exaggerate David P. Morgan’s influence. He meant the world to at least two generations of railfans who read and loved his version of Trains magazine. He definitely inspired a legion of readers to go into railroading as a career, some of whom became prominent in the industry.

What gives me the most satisfaction is the effect he had on those of us who write about railroads. It seems everybody I’ve known in this game would name him as their primary influence, not so much because of the way they themselves write — nobody comes close to DPM — but more for the way he exemplified doing something for the sheer love of it. One of my favorite writers, Fred W. Frailey, has said, “I studied at the David P. Morgan School of Journalism.” Amen, Fred. We all did.

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