The making of a railroad executive

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, August 18, 2009

From Rollin Bredenberg comes a note. “Did I ever show you this?” he asks. Attached is a story that appeared 48 years ago in the San Antonio Express & News. The accompanying photograph shows 16-year-old Rollin beside Southern Pacific’s San Antonio Division superintendent. Rollin looks just the same today, by the way. He’s just added 48 years of age to that enthusiastic face.
 
The son of a dairy farmer, Rollin grew up near Lacoste, Texas, west of San Antonio. In his subteen years he contracted railroad flu, an incurable disease that you can treat but never be rid of. In his wily way (this was not in the newspaper story), Rollin had convinced the SP agent in Lacoste to leave the depot unlocked when he left for the night so that Rollin could come in after supper, put the dispatcher phone against his ear, and copy train orders as they were issued. This he’d do until bedtime, being careful to lock the depot door as he left.
 
Also not in the newspaper story was that the agent bid another job, and his replacement wouldn’t play Rollin’s game. So a conductor lent him a switch key, enabling Rollin to listen from the phone booth at the end of the siding as the dispatcher directed operations on the Sunset Route between San Antonio and Del Rio, Texas.
 
Now back to the newspaper story: SP police caught young Bredenberg red-handed in the phone booth one day in early 1961. The matter was reported to the division superintendent, J.W. Kraemer, who summoned Rollin and his parents to his office for an explanation and dressing-down. But it was Kraemer who got upended. Rollin displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of the San Antonio Division, according to the newspaper article. Knowing Rollin, I’d wager he did more than that. He probably exhibited a sophistication about SP operations that rivaled that of Kraemer, and maybe even made a few suggestions for improving operations.
 
So impressed was Kraemer by this young trespasser that he arranged for Rollin to meet the legendary G.W. Kelly, general manager of all SP lines east of El Paso and one of the savviest railroaders of his generation. And before you knew it, word of Rollin got all the way to San Francisco and president Donald J. Russell. Russell, an imperious man not known for sentimentality, wrote Rollin a lengthy letter of advice, which I wish the newspaper had quoted from.
 
Instead of being lectured for trespassing and being told to never set foot on the property again, which would surely be the case today, Rollin Bredenberg became the pet of Southern Pacific officialdom. A warm outcome, don’t you agree?
 
Rollin Bredenberg subsequently justified Southern Pacific’s faith in him. He worked as a brakeman out of San Antonio during summers while attending Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and one term managed to both attend classes in Illinois and stay marked up on the extra board in Texas. I guess airline tickets were cheap then.
 
Out of college, he worked his way up the ranks of SP, in the 1980s becoming a successor to Kelly as general manager in Houston. Today, he’s BNSF Railway’s vice president for service design and performance and the go-to man in the Operating Department when decades of field experience are needed to make judgments.
 
And here’s the thing. Rollin remains just as enthusiastic about the railroad business — and just as much in love with trains — as he was the day that the Express & News photographed him at age 16. That’s him, on the top left, co-piloting the 4449 last month.
 
Think of Rollin Bredenberg and the many railroaders just like him the next time you run across an embittered railroad employee who wishes that he or she were doing something different. — Fred W. Frailey     

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