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I'll never know the man, but I will carry his torch

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Thursday, July 13, 2017

Last week, we lost a legend.

I am heartfelt in using this phrase, not ironic, because to me Bill Withuhn was one of those figures that seemed to loom larger-than-life above the railroad preservation industry. He was a sage, dolling out parcels of advice in the forward of railroad history books. I stood in away of his record as a tireless advocate who set a  high bar for restoration projects and interpretive museum displays. I heard other people relate their interactions with the man and speak highly of his character and personality.  

Unfortunately, Withuhn's passing last week means that he will always remain mythological--I will never have the privilege of a personal introduction that humanizes him and, in the best possible outcome, allows me to call him a friend. I cannot, thus, eulogize the man himself. I can only write high praise of the various railroad preservation projects that Withuhn was involved in.  Withuhn and I are connected, though impersonally so, by some those projects. He was instrumental in bringing two Alco PAs back to the United States from Mexico, one of which eventually found a home at the Museum of the American Railroad here in Frisco, Texas. To my knowledge, there was never a formal moment of officially handing this project over. A group of volunteers who shared the same fundamental vision--it was worth it to bring this rare diesel locomotive back to operating condition--amassed themselves. We shared Withuhn’s belief that the PA deserved a second career. That was a self-apparent fact.

As it stands now, the project does sometimes feel overwhelming. The PA is hollowed out inside, and it takes some imagination to see its final form, given that so many parts of the car body are missing. It may well be years before it is returned to running condition,  but the restoration is still plodding away in increments. It would be unthinkable to let it fallow when Withuhn already accomplished the hardest task--expending great effort and diplomacy to get it back here. We aren’t truly enduring enduring difficulty, but rather frustration that the process of raising funds and procuring the appropriate parts can be so slow. Giving up would be an insult to the effort it took to bring it here.  

Ongoing projects like these and the number of people who are dedicated to finishing them up are signs of an accomplished life. I am in awe of--perhaps even somewhat envious of--just how much Withuhn managed to accomplish during one lifetime. The PAs in Texas and Oregon are one of many restoration efforts that drew upon Withuhn's extensive knowledge and professional reputation. He acted as a powerful advocate for transportation history and fundraising during his tenure at the Smithsonian. Many mainline steam excursions and restoration projects benefited from his participation, and he was working to commit the knowledge of the steam locomotive to the page even up until his death.These 

So, while I will never know the man himself, I will still see him in the bent and rusted carbody struts I’ve sweated to hammer straight, sense his knowledge in the background of a particularly well-designed museum display, hear him whispering out from a book passage that effortlessly turns a complex mechanical concept into layman’s speech. The highest compliment that can be given to a man like Withuhn is that he is involved in so many projects that will continue to educate and entertain the public long after his lifespan. 

We’d all be lucky to leave that kind of legacy.

 
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