Remembering Katie McMullen, an early '50s "Trains" staffer

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, December 19, 2017

'Trains' magazine staffers Rosemary Entringer (left), Wally Abbey, and Katie McMullen gather around David P. Morgan at his desk in the Kalmbach Publishing Co. offices in January 1953, shortly after Morgan was named editor in chief. Photo from the book 'Wallace W. Abbey: A Life in Railroad Photography,' due in 2018 from Indiana University Press; courtesy Center for Railroad Photography & Art
My wife Alison is an inveterate obituary reader, so I have to give her credit for checking the fine print this weekend in the Sunday Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and spotting the December 15 death of Catherine E. “Katie” McMullen at age 90.

That name probably won’t mean much to you, but if you were a Trains magazine reader in the early 1950s, or, like me, you have a bit of an obsession with the history of Trains and Kalmbach Publishing Co., then McMullen’s passing is worth noting.

McMullen was a longtime editor at Kalmbach in the 1950s and ’60s. She first came aboard at Trains as an editorial assistant and later worked her way up to the position of editor in chief of another Kalmbach title, Better Camping.

Publisher Al Kalmbach had launched the camping title in the 1950s, as parents of baby boomers began exploring en masse the great outdoors. It was the postwar heyday of station wagons, lightweight tents, kerosene lanterns, and pop-up campers, and Al wanted to take advantage of the craze.

By all accounts, Katie McMullen, an avid outdoorswoman, was perfect for the job. She was born in 1927 in Toronto but spent her childhood in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood on the south side. She later graduated from Marquette University with a journalism degree and found herself in the magazine business.

Those first years at Trains were important, in my mind, because McMullen was there at a crucial moment in the magazine’s history. It was the early 1950s and the magazine’s growth had stalled, most likely with the passing of the steam locomotive. Some readers began walking away from Trains. For a time it even changed its name to Trains & Travel to broaden its appeal. In 1953, Al Kalmbach turned to the new kid, 26-year-old David P. Morgan, to reposition Trains for the future. 

McMullen found herself among a staff of heavyweights. In addition to Morgan, she also became a colleague of Wallace W. “Wally” Abbey, himself becoming a formidable railroad journalist and photographer, and Rosemary “Rosy” Entringer, who would become the magazine’s legendary managing editor.

There’s a photograph I love showing the entire staff together, standing behind Morgan at his desk. Wally apparently took the picture using a timer. They all look so incredibly young and eager, like they’re ready to take on the world, armed with their ceaseless curiosity and their manual typewriters.

Alas, the moment captured in that photo didn’t last. Wally Abbey left Trains in 1954 to pursue a successful railroad public relations career. He died in 2014. Rosie spent her entire career at Trains, “policing the parallelisms,” as Morgan once said of her. She died in 1977. David, as most readers know, stayed for the long haul, retiring in 1987 after 33 in the top jobs. He died in 1990.

Katie McMullen, meanwhile, remained with Better Camping into the mid-1960s until Kalmbach sold it to Woodall Publishing, based in Highland Park, Ill. She moved with her magazine and stayed for several years before taking her career in other directions, including a public affairs job at camping outfitter Coleman.

There’s no one at Kalmbach any more who remembers McMullen, but I checked in with her longtime friend Nancy Bartol, whom many of you will know from her years as Trains’ production editor and Kalmbach’s librarian. Nancy retired in 2007 and counted Katie as a good friend.

“Katie was a fun person to work with,” says Nancy, “but as an editor she could also be very demanding. She knew what she wanted.” A highlight of McMullen’s life was participating in a luncheon for outdoor writers, hosted in Washington, D.C., by Lady Bird Johnson.

There is very little trace of Better Camping around the halls of Kalmbach these days, mostly some back issues tucked away in the library and a couple of paintings by railroad artist and longtime Kalmbach assistant art director Gil Reid, showing exuberant families fanning out across America in the go-go days of camping.

But Katie McMullen is worth remembering. She did some good work for Al Kalmbach over the years, not least of which was her tenure at Trains. Her editorial fingerprints linger somewhere in there amid the stories and pictures that helped bring DPM and his magazine into a new era.

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