Bob Downing had a thick skin

Posted by Kevin P. Keefe
on Thursday, September 9, 2010

Posted by Kevin P. Keefe, publisher

The death last month of former Burlington Northern President Robert Downing was a noteworthy event not only in the railroad industry, but also among its historians and fans. Downing died August 4 at age 96. Friends report that, right up until the end, he was mentally sharp. And, I’m sure, characteristically upbeat.

Bob Downing was a popular figure with everyone he met in railroading, including the members of the Lexington Group in Transportation History, a loose-knit group of transportation professionals, academics, and journalists. Bob was a fixture at annual Lexington meetings for many years, and had a reputation for asking sharp but friendly questions of the group’s presenters and speakers. Often it had to do with his beloved Great Northern.

I witnessed Bob’s good humor firsthand in September 1993, when the Santa Fe ran an office-car special on the back end of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from Chicago to Kansas City for the annual Lexington meeting. The train was as first-class as you can get, complete with theater car and a top-notch dining staff. Late that night, I was sitting up in a dome car with Bob and a friend of mine, Paul Schneider, a former colleague at Trains. In an earlier life, Paul had been a Burlington Northern tower operator, and that night he was holding forth with a number of opinions about his former employer. Except that he didn’t know the identity of the older gentleman sitting with us in the darkness.

At one point Paul began talking about BN’s acquisition in the late 1970s of portions of the old Milwaukee Road in eastern Washington, only to tear it up a few years later. Paul said many experts agreed that BN made a mistake. Paul mentioned this to the soft-spoken stranger next to him, asking acerbically, “What the hell was wrong with BN management at the time?” The stranger agreed it was a dumb move and confirmed that BN didn’t always act in its own interests.

“So what did you do for BN?” asked Schneider. “Well,” a smiling Bob said, modestly, “I was the president of the railroad.”

Schneider nearly fell into the aisle, mortified by what he thought was a monstrous faux pas. But Bob assured Paul there was no offense, going out of his way to help the poor fellow off the hook. And, yes, he agreed with Paul’s assertion about the Milwaukee abandonment. That was Bob: always modest about his own accomplishments, and always objective in his analysis. A couple of generations of railroaders miss him already.

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