The real reason we’re railfans

Posted by Kathi Kube
on Monday, April 4, 2011

This past week has been a time of enormous reflection for me. Ryan Schoenfeldt died on Tuesday. You might have seen his obituary in our News Wire, or posted to one or more of the many Yahoo! Groups he frequented. Or you might have even seen one of the heartwarming tributes posted on websites run by the Center for Railroad Photography and Art or Wisconsin & Southern Railroad. Throughout the week, many friends and acquaintances have added their own comments, several saying that they didn't know him well, but he always seemed like a really nice guy. Then, when they look at the photos he posted to his Flickr page, many more commented how so many of his photos were familiar to them as some of their favorites. 

What you might not know, though, is what a very special friend he was to me. In my eight years at TRAINS, I've met hundreds of people involved in railroading, both fans and those who work in the industry. But my core group of friends - the ones with whom I talk the most, go fanning with, and share the inside jokes that come from spending too many hours in the sun, in hot cars, or in a restaurant long after closing hours - those guys I know through just two: Ryan and Sayre Kos. 

Although I liked trains more than the average person when I took the job at TRAINS, I wouldn't say I was a railfan at that time. I had been here a short while when then-Editor Mark Hemphill sent me to the Louisville & Indiana to do a story. On my last day there, L&I gave me a cab ride. Shortly after we started out, I looked out the window and saw these two young guys chasing and photographing my train. (If I recall correctly, that day happened to be Ryan's birthday. The two of them were on their way to the Summerail show in Cincinnati.) I loved that two railfans were chasing the very train I was on, so I attached my business card to a Metra pen I'd picked up at a tradeshow and threw it out the window at them. 

The week I returned, Ryan sent me an email introducing himself and his friend, Sayre Kos. It was a sweet email and one I'm especially glad now that I saved all these many years. A few months later, I decided I needed to chase a train and understand why so many of our readers do this. Naturally, I contacted Ryan and Sayre and asked if they'd be willing to take me out. We met up, and I had the time of my life. My only camera at the time was a very sad point-and-shoot, but it suited me well because I had no idea what I was doing with it. 

Within a few months, they were inviting me out fanning with more friends and to slideshows. Before long, this growing crowd of lunatics didn't see me as Kathi Kube, an editor at TRAINS, but rather as Kathi Kube, friend and fellow foamer. 

When I bought my first SLR camera, Ryan and Sayre were among the first guys I called to help me try it out and learn about photography. Ryan lived closest to me, just a half-hour's drive from my home, so it was easiest to call him up on a sunny day and say, "Hey, I've got the rest of the day free. Is anything running?" He always knew, and knew the best places to shoot whatever train that day. 

As the years have passed, much has changed. We lost Mike Abalos, another dear friend I knew thanks to Ryan and Sayre, Sayre married his high school sweetheart, and he and Jennifer had a little boy six months ago. Ryan was to become his godfather April 3 - today, actually, as I'm writing this.

But then Sayre called me last Tuesday morning to tell me that Ryan had died in his sleep sometime the night before. I'm still in shock and have to pause as I write this. Healthy 34-year-old men don't just die in their sleep. We're still waiting to learn the cause of his death, but it won't really change anything. The world lost a bright, bright star last week.

Many of the group he and Sayre introduced me to made it to his visitation Friday evening, coming from Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado, Iowa, and North Dakota, and even leaving a family vacation early to attend. We went up to say goodbye and pay our respects to his family as a group. When our turn came, we met his friend from work, whom he talked about often, and learned that he talked to her about us just as often. 

As we crowded around his parents, they were able for the first time to put faces to names they knew so well, and warmly greet others of us they already knew. Again we learned that Ryan spoke of us to his family so often, they too felt they knew the whole gang. It became obvious that Ryan talked most about the people he loved most. 

"I read all your comments on his Flickr page. And by the way, my son's name isn't 'Richard,'" his mom said, prompting sheepish grins all around for the ribbing we give each other for a great shot.

She stressed, too, what a wonderful person he was. "He wasn't addicted to alcohol or drugs. The only thing he was addicted to ... was you guys," she said. 

Well, maybe us and Sun Drop soda, which he always kept in the trunk of his car.

But that's really the crux of all this, and why it hurts so badly, as well as the lesson we can take from this extremely sad and untimely event.  No matter how any of us came to the hobby, either from birth or later in life, we all came for the trains. But then we found camaraderie, either through the pages of a magazine or by a chance meeting with someone else who shared this slightly unusual interest. All at once, we learned we weren't alone. And before long, we all learned about the railfan community. Sometimes this community is a club, sometimes it's a group of 20-plus rather obnoxious individuals throwing pretzels at a projector screen, and sometimes it's people sitting alone at their computers reaching into the darkness and finding kindred spirits. 

Whatever form it takes, it's the railfan community that makes this such a wonderful hobby, and we need to remember that on a daily basis. As we were preparing to go our own ways after Ryan's memorial service, another friend stated how he hoped we could all see each other again soon under better circumstances. That's really up to us, though. I know, life gets busy and it becomes harder and harder to get away. I'm at least as guilty of that as anyone. But whether we see each other and reap the rewards of being in a community is up to us. 

All of you have your own Ryan and Sayre. They might not have been chasing a train in which you were getting a cab ride, but they were the first people who introduced you to the community - and they're probably still among your best friends today. Call them. Set a date to go chasing, or host a slideshow or even a barbecue. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you spend time together.

And the next time you see a train silhouetted against the setting sun, or a grain elevator, or even pretzels or Sun Drop soda in your local grocery store, please think of Ryan Schoenfeldt. Then think about you own friends and call them. Just to say hi.

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