Nobody could write like Pete Hansen

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, May 21, 2020

Pete Hansen archives railroad china for a railroad museum in Kansas City. Photo by Roy Inman.
Successful magazine editors are in an endless search for talent, especially if most of their content comes from freelance writers. That’s basically the editorial model for Classic Trains and Trains magazines: readers write the stories and the staff edits them. You never know when a manila envelope from the next Fred Frailey is going to land on your desk, or in your email inbox, and when you do, you jump on it.  

That these two magazines have done well with this model is obvious with every issue. I defy any other special-interest field to come up with as many talented, passionate, dedicated authors. In the case of Trains, this legacy of great writing goes back nearly 80 years.

In my years editing Trains, I was lucky to welcome a number of good writers, never more so than early in 1996, when I got a query from a name I didn’t recognize, a Sprint management guy from Kansas City named Peter A. Hansen.

Pete had written a short opinion piece called “The Case for the Business Traveler,” in which he extolled the virtues of Amtrak’s overnight trains, promoting them as a way for busy people to slow down and actually think. His example was a trip he took on the Southwest Chief, with this nice turn of phrase: “Aboard train No. 4 . . . my muse quietly introduced herself, or perhaps I was finally still enough to hear her.”

I liked that. We bought Pete’s essay and scheduled it for the November 1996 issue. I hoped we'd hear from Pete again.  

It didn’t take long. Pete clearly was after bigger game, and soon arrived a blockbuster, “Give the People a Monument,” a long manuscript about Pete’s beloved Kansas City Union Station. It became an 11-page cover story in April 1999.

This was a big step up for Pete, his first major piece in Trains, a goal I later learned he’d had for quite some time. He was more than ready. The magazine had a tradition of running big stories on big stations, but Pete’s made a lot of them look rather ponderous. His transcended the usual recitation of track numbers, architectural styles, train frequencies, and ceiling heights. His was a story of Kansas City itself, distilling the soul of the city into a narrative filled with big-city politicians, a blue-chip architect, Fred Harvey meals, legendary train names, gangster shootouts, decline, and then revival. Pete made Union Station come alive. 

Trains' April 2000 cover featuring Casey Jones' train
I knew we were on to something with Pete, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what came next. The April 2000 issue would be the centennial of Casey Jones’ celebrated wreck at Vaughan, Miss., and I couldn’t imagine that anniversary going unremarked in Trains.

Somehow Pete and I got together on the subject, and what he produced — he called it, naturally, “The Brave Engineer” — became a story closer to my heart than almost anything else we published in those days. Here was historical journalism of the highest order, filled with drama, undiscovered detail, and suspense. I saw that Pete would have readers hanging on every word, even though they all knew what awaited Casey when he came around that curve in Vaughan.

A few of my friends in the small circle of Trains writers got wind of my plan to put Casey on the cover and some politely said I was nuts. Maybe the staff felt that way, too. “What a war horse.  Everyone’s heard that story before. This is going to tank,” was the basic gist of it.

But they hadn’t heard the story at all — at least not the way Pete told it. Reader reaction was overwhelmingly positive and the issue did better than most on the newsstand, helped along by a vivid cover painting by former Kalmbach artist John Swatsley, coaxed back to trains after decades as a leading painter of African wildlife. What satisfied me most was that Pete was happy.

There were many more great pieces to come from Pete, including several cover stories in Trains. Together they demonstrate his amazing range. In January 2001, Pete drew on his tech experience at Sprint to put together one of the earliest, most detailed previews of the coming of Positive Train Control. In May 2005, he gave readers a primer on how to train professional railroaders. In October 2006, he wrote a definitive piece on that steam paradise called Nevada Northern.

Meanwhile, Pete kept up his historical chops in the pages of Classic Trains. In the Winter 2001 issue came “Hitler’s Rail Wreckers,” a gripping account of a Nazi plot to blow up significant choke points in the U.S. railroad system, including Horseshoe Curve. In the Fall 2006 issue was “The Few, the Proud,” a touching story that chronicled the legacy of railway mail workers.

The thing with Pete was, you never knew where his curiosity would lead next, but you knew you’d want to go with him. 

Not long ago we heard that Pete was gravely ill, news that stunned everyone in the greater Trains family. It seemed impossible that this could be happening to someone who’d been such a force in our work, not to mention so comparatively young. We’d gotten used to Pete being seemingly everywhere — atop the masthead of R&HLS’s Railroad History, which he so capably edited for more than 12 years; hosting TV documentaries for producer Rich Luckin; lending his professional advice to a number of railroad preservation organizations; and, most recently, curating the papers of historian and author William L. Withuhn. Such versatility. 

Pete died last week, on Friday, May 15, at home in Winter Park, Fla., with his unflagging and devoted wife Bonnie at his side. It seemed impossible that only two weeks before the three of us enjoyed a couple of long conversations, talking about old friends, remembering old battles, even laughing quite a bit. I was struck by their bravery. 

Pete Hansen will be remembered for a lot of things — editor, historian, television host, preservationist, museum consultant, certainly his friendship to so many people. The latter is something I’ll miss the most. But a close second is having the privilege — the excitement! — of being the first person to read the latest Pete Hansen story. When the manila envelope in the inbox had his name on it, you knew you were in for something extraordinary. He was that kind of writer.

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