A boxcar pitted us against DPM

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, January 17, 2019

In 1975, Kalmbach commissioned an HO scale model of a Milwaukee Road ribbed-side boxcar to mark Trains magazine's 35th birthday. The choice of car was a natural, but opinion on the slogan was divided. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Among the handful of mementos that stare down at me each morning in my office, one grabs my attention most. It’s an HO-scale boxcar, bright yellow with a bright red Trains magazine logo on its flanks, sitting atop a section of track mounted on a small wooden base. I look at it frequently, occasionally dust it off, and treat it like a fragile and treasured work of art.

A work of art? A bit of an exaggeration, you say? Not to me, not given the memories it conjures up — memories of a place, a time, and a certain Editor. 

In 1975, I was a 24-year-old copywriter for Kalmbach, working in the Sales Department on the fifth floor of the company’s building at 1027 N. Seventh St. in downtown Milwaukee. My official job title was sales promotion manager, but I prefer copywriter because it represents most of what I did: write ad copy for Kalmbach products.

The big event looming on our calendar that fall was the upcoming 35th anniversary of Trains, to be celebrated as usual in the November issue. Those of us in Sales were charged with coming up with a nifty promotion. We gravitated to selling an anniversary HO-scale freight car in a special paint scheme, something the company had done before with Trains’ sister magazine, Model Railroader

I don’t know who came up with the idea of patterning the model after a 1937 Milwaukee Road boxcar, but I’m guessing it was Editor David P. Morgan. David loved to tie threads together, and a boxcar manufactured in Trains’ hometown around the time the magazine was launched would be perfect. One of my colleagues, Ad Manager Fred Hamilton, was charged with finding a model manufacturer to supply the cars. 

MILW's West Milwaukee shops, located 4 miles from Kalmbach's offices, turned out more than 10,000 distinctive boxcars of welded, ribbed-side construction.
 We couldn’t have picked rolling stock with a better lineage. The Milwaukee Road’s welded boxcar was a first, portending a design approach that would ultimately become standard. The railroad built more than 13,000 of them at its West Milwaukee shops between 1937 and 1949, in both 40- and 50-foot versions. Early examples had Hutchins roofs, a design dating from the early 1920s and featuring a thin secondary rib between the main ribs of the roof. Later versions had the simplified Murphy panel roof.  

The most distinctive features, of course, were those wide-spaced horizontal ribs, allowing for a lighter but stronger car. They were also reminiscent of what the public was seeing on the new Hiawatha passenger-car fleet of 1937. Early versions of the boxcars had the ribs extending the full length of the car sides; on cars built after 1944, the ribs stopped short of the ends of the car.  

When it came to finding a supplier, my memory tells me we turned to Model Die Casting (MDC), which had the Milwaukee Road car in their catalog at the time. Fred knew everyone in the model-railroad business and I’m sure he had fun working on this with MDC. 

My part of the job was simple: write a suitable slogan and work with the Art Department to create a paint scheme. The latter was easy. As I recall, the project was assigned to my pal Gil Reid, renowned railroad artist and then the company’s assistant art director. It was always fun working with Gil and I loved the simple design he came up with. Deciding on the best slogan, however, would be a different story.

An ad for the commemorative boxcar in Trains' November 1975 issue was headlined 'Two Milwaukee Pioneers' -- a reference to the magazine's position in the market and MILW's leadership in welded car construction.
My partner on this was Michael Stephens, our circulation manager. It was Mike’s job to actually sell the boxcar, so we had joint responsibility. He liked the slogan I came up with, “Reporting the Rails for Thirty-Five Years.” I thought it was catchy enough and conveyed the basic message of Trains’ leadership among railroad magazines. Using the word “reporting” underscored the magazine’s seriousness about covering the industry. And I thought Morgan would love the alliteration, a gimmick for which he had an affinity.

How wrong I was. David dismissed our idea and came back at us with own: “Welded to Railroading for Thirty-Five Years.” 

For Stephens and me, David’s counterproposal was a dud. The insider reference to welding was, well, too inside. The phrase didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, either. But coming out on top over Morgan wouldn’t be easy. Here we were, a pair of 24- and 22-year-old kids (I’m the 24), going up against a giant in our field, and someone who, for me, had already become a mentor. 

Mike and I held out for our slogan, despite good-naturedly snide comments from Morgan. Our boss (and David’s peer) Bill Akin, vice president of sales, was obliged to make the final call. Bill and David were close friends, going back to the early ’50s at Kalmbach when Bill was art director of Trains. The two of them chatted every afternoon in Bill’s office; you could set your watch by David’s arrival in Sales. I rated the chances for our slogan as slim. 

I was wrong! Bill, bless him, overruled DPM and my little slogan ended up on the sides of a couple of hundred yellow Milwaukee Road boxcars. I’ll never forget it, the day the boss came down in favor of his boys. 

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