The John Gruber I knew

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, October 16, 2018

John Gruber, who died October 9 after a brief illness, was a giant of rail photography.
I never knew when the phone would ring, but it did, with some regularity.

“Hello, this is John Gruber. You free for lunch this week?”

It was a ritual John and I shared frequently in recent years. He was always the instigator, and I don’t think I ever turned him down. We’d meet somewhere in the Milwaukee area — he liked a variety of restaurants, not necessarily the meat-and-potatoes railfan spots — and the agenda generally was his. Sometimes it was the business of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, the organization he created and for which I serve on the board. Sometimes it was about a project he was working on for an upcoming book or magazine article. Sometimes he was merely feeling me out about a certain person. It was always deep into our lunch that the agenda would emerge, but emerge it did. 

I treasure the memories of those encounters, especially now that we’ve lost John. If you’re plugged into railfan media at all, you know that John Gruber passed away on October 9. The shock of his sudden departure has not worn off.

I owe a lot to John. Not just because I’ve enjoyed his wonderful photographs and writings over 40 years, which I have, or because he enlisted me to get involved in the Center, which I really love, or because we worked together on editorial projects over the years, all of which I treasured. What I really owe him is a thanks for getting me involved in railroading at all, a debt that goes back to when I was a teenager.

I was 14 in the summer of 1965, and staying in the house for a few days while I battled the flu. Seeing how bored I was, my enterprising mother headed out to our local newsstand and came back with something entirely new to me: Trains magazine. It was the August issue, featuring John’s cover photo essay on Chicago Union Station.

Being a railroad fan was a lonely pursuit for me in those days. I’d never met another kid with remotely the same interest. Suddenly here was a magazine that hit me right in my wheelhouse. I couldn’t put it down.

Gruber's photo essay on Chicago Union Station in August 1965 Trains stands out as a highlight in his lifetime of great work. 
Some of the credit for that goes to Editor David P. Morgan, of course. But in the case of that first issue, I give most of it to John. From the cover photo of a Milwaukee Road FP7 basking in shafts of sunlight at the north platforms of CUS all the way to the portraits of trains and railroaders and passengers on pages 28 through 46, John captured the heady excitement I always felt when I boarded a train in Chicago. John had an uncanny feel for bringing everyday details to vivid life, and in a way that reminded me of Life magazine, a favorite of my parents. Here was railroading at its boldest, with a bold photographer to match!

Years later, as I got to know John, I think he became a bit weary of me always bringing up August 1965. Sometimes he’d crack a slight smile when I’d simply say “commuters," "a city dweller,” or “it could be a cathedral,” or any of the other pithy phrases Morgan used to complement the photographs. For close to 20 years I’ve kept a small facsimile of that Union Station cover hanging over my desk. It’s still there. 

Thinking about it now, I can’t recall the first time I met John, although it was probably in 1987 at Pitch’s Club 113, a little restaurant and watering hole on Blue Mound Road in Wauwatosa. In those days, on various weeknights, John would join a few friends for dinner and drinks. The crew usually included Dave and Margaret Morgan, Soo Line dispatcher and author Ed King, attorney Pete Bunde, and a few other hangers on. My boss Dave Ingles dragged me along one night and I had a wonderful time. I especially recall watching the easygoing relationship John had with DPM, the result of all their trips together over the years.

A couple of days ago I checked in with Ed, to commiserate over our loss. I mentioned that Pitch’s is probably where I first met John and he offered a story of his own, one I can’t resist passing along. Here is Ed’s account:

“Summer 1976. Southern is running its bicentennial steam extravaganza out of Alexandria with Consolidation 630 and Mikado 4501. 

“Friday evening. After getting off work (at the U.S. Railway Association in downtown D.C.) I went to Alexandria Shop where I knew they’d be getting the engines hot and ready for the next day. I found Donald Purdie on the 4501 and he told me that he and his dad were supposed to be getting the engines hot, but Bill P. and Jim Bistline were working the crowd, so Donald was by himself. I told Donald to stay on the 4501 and I’d take care of the 630 (I’d been doing some firing on those excursions).

Southern Railway 4501 departs Chattanooga in 1966. Gruber photographed the Southern's steam excursions extensively — and masterfully. John Gruber 
“I was on the 630 with everything under control when a hellish rainstorm came up — a real frog strangler. I looked down the gangway of the cab and here’s this guy standing there with a Nikon around his neck. Not wanting to see such a fine camera get soaked, I motioned for the guy to come up in the cab. It was, of course, John. We got acquainted and, after things got quieted down, we wound up going to dinner, thus beginning one of my best friendships.”

Ed’s description is perfect. For John, nothing got in the way of a good photograph, least of all the elements. An unobtrusive but persistent guy with a camera, getting drenched in the rain: that was John Gruber.

You don’t have to look far for heartfelt tributes to John, many of them from photographers. I’m not a photographer, so I’ll leave it to the pros in that fraternity to analyze his style and influence in detail. Suffice it to say it was monumental. To me, John was a giant whose work straddled two eras of photography yet relentlessly looked forward.

None of that was on the agenda a couple of months ago when John and I had lunch again. I could not have anticipated it would be our last. He was wrapped up in a bunch of projects, including plans for attending the Center’s symposium at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, where people would gather to celebrate Beebe & Clegg, Their Enduring Photographic Legacy, the book John co-authored with John Ryan and Mel Patrick, published by CRPA. He seemed excited as ever about the work yet to be done.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, but the restaurant we settled on was Major Goolsby’s, at the corner of 4th Street and Kilbourn in downtown Milwaukee. Once upon a time it had been Dave Morgan’s favorite place to catch a drink after work, going all the way back to the 1950s when it was known as Deutsch & Graun. I’m sure John had been there several times, sitting at the bar with Dave and Margaret.

We had a good time. There was an obvious theme going through my mind, of how Goolsby’s was a bit of a legend among friends of Morgan, and of how appropriate it was that John, a giant in his own right, was back in an old haunt. But that’s only what I was thinking. I’m glad I didn’t say anything, least of all that he was a giant, because all I would have gotten back was that slight smile. 

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