“Grandpa” John Gruber had a twinkle in his eye

on Wednesday, October 10, 2018

John Gruber signs a copy of "Railroaders:Jack Delano's Homefront Photography" at the Chicago History Museum, April 5, 2014. Photo by Angela Pusztai-Pasternak

There are folks worthier than me of writing about John Gruber who passed away Oct. 9, 2018. Certainly, the list includes his family, his close friends, railroaders, photographers, business associates, and railfans who admire the books he wrote, the photos he took, all the beautiful work he’d done personally and professionally, especially founding the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. John was a multitalented man with an amazing drive to create beautiful art in the fullest sense of imagery and words, to support other artists who do the same, and to give voice and outlets to numerous people in history by way of their families in the books and stories he wrote. The John that I knew was all of these things and something even more spectacular. And that was what I believe was his magnum opus: being a grandfather.

I’m pretty sure when John sat down in my office, his intent was never to discuss a book, a story, photos, or other upcoming projects. He wanted to talk about his grandkids. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting two of them, thankfully more than once. Earlier this summer, John asked me to go to lunch with him and his grandkids Martin and Tamara. I will admit I hadn’t before been asked to go to lunch with a contributor and his grandchildren. But, hey, it sounded like a good time to me! I asked him where he wanted to go. He said, “Well, they like ice cream. How about Culver’s?” How sweet of him. He always had their desires in mind. Going to lunch with the grandkids was something we’d put on the back burner for a while. I’m so glad we finally did it. The kids and their grandpa had a mutual admiration for one another. As we dined at a local Mexican place (at the last minute, John thought we could do better than Culver’s because after all, I was buying!), I asked the kids all kinds of questions about what they were reading (they’d brought books with them), what was keeping them busy over the summer, what extracurriculars they were in. As they answered my myriad questions, John chimed in, “They have wonderful musical talent.” “Martin is great at soccer.” “They’ve been doing [fill-in-the-blank activity] since they were little.”

And then he told me all about the Colorado narrow gauge trip he planned for his grandkids that they took this past summer — not the first trip “grandpa” had taken them on, of course, but it was a train trip, so John was stoked. He’d taken Martin and Tamara on other trips, including skiing out West since they were toddlers. He was so proud that Martin had been skiing since he was 3 or 4 years old. I think he told me that every time the topic of skiing ever came up. I’d heard about those ski trips, as well as other adventures with grandkids, for years, as John would sit in my office in his gray “grandpa” cardigan, hair in perfect disarray, reading glasses dangling around his neck, hands clasped in his lap, talking about his grandkids with John-like enthusiasm.

He was a big supporter of Trains4Kids, a two-time Kalmbach children’s publication. He’d ask me periodically if it’d ever get reprised. He even sent me a photo once of his grandson on a train to publish in a future kids’ magazine should it ever come to be. I’m sure deep down he’d wished his grandkids were railfans but he supported their individual interests with vigor and pride. Martin and Tamara will do great things, just like their grandpa — there’s no doubt. Drive and talent like John had is inherited in one form or another. And, I just know "Grandpa" will be "trackside" watching each and every one of their successes. I’m glad I got to know “Grandpa” John. He sparkled. His eyes twinkled when he spoke about his grandkids. It was a beautiful thing. 

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