Say it ain’t so: Rob McGonigal is moving on

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Classic Trains Editor Rob McGonigal photographed in Two Harbors, Minn., in 2016. Dick Gruber photo
Of course, I already knew this, but reading it in black and white on page 3 of the Winter 2021 issue of didn’t make it any more believable: Rob McGonigal has retired as the editor of Classic Trains after 22 years at the helm, and nearly 29 years at parent company Kalmbach. 

How did this happen? I mean, didn’t I just hire this guy as the youngster on the staff of Trains? The guy we came to know as “RSM”? Wasn’t that just yesterday?

Well, it wasn’t. Rob has spent nearly a quarter century building the readership and the reputation of a truly great magazine. Not ever being on his staff, I’ve delighted in picking up every issue and encountering it afresh, just like all of you. I’ve been engrossed, entertained, even thrilled by what’s been in its pages. Once in a while, I’ve even had the privilege of being one of Rob’s writers.

From that perspective, I offer some random thoughts on Rob’s career: 

• Know your readers: From the moment it sprang from the starting gate in early 2000, Classic Trains was a success, quickly hitting impressive circulation numbers and staying there. The overwhelming credit for that goes to Rob, who exhibited an uncanny feel for the so-called “classic era” of railroading, roughly the 1920s through the 1970s. Rob missed most of that era— he was born in 1959. But that was hardly an impediment. He’d steeped himself in railroading since his very first issue of Trains — April 1966 — and his deep knowledge and passion for the subject was evident on every page. I can think of a number of magazine editors who at one time or another had an almost supernatural feel for what readers wanted. David E. Davis did it at Car & Driver in the 1970s, and Jann Wenner over the first two decades of Rolling Stone. I’d put Rob McGonigal in the same company.  

• Look for talent in your own backyard: In mid-1992 I had just started my new position as Trains editor, and for a welcome gift my publisher, Russ Larson, managed to sell the company on adding a new assistant editor. Great news! To fill the job, at first we did the predictable thing, casting about for candidates from across the country. But a mutual friend kept telling me about this Rob McGonigal guy, someone I’d run across a couple of times at local Milwaukee railfan haunts. I began doing a little rudimentary research on Rob and quickly found myself checking a lot of important boxes. He had a great education (University of Pennsylvania, 1981, followed by the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture). He had an interesting if rather unrelated job, working on the staff of southeast Wisconsin’s regional planning agency. He’d done some nice work producing publications for Historic Milwaukee, the city’s most forward-thinking preservation organization. Most of all, I found out about his tendency to devour every new issue of Trains and come up with trenchant observations about what we’d done right and, most importantly, what we’d done wrong. An editor can never have enough of that. A long, lingering lunch sealed the deal. Hired!

A six-year-old Rob hangs out on his beloved PRR at Overbrook, Pa., in 1965. Paul J. McGonigal photo 
• New York Central versus Pennsylvania: It was only natural that Rob and I would endlessly needle each other over our respective favorite railroads. We fell into it as naturally as the NYC and PRR battled for the New York–Chicago passenger trade. I grew up in Michigan on the NYC and since childhood had pledged allegiance to lightning-stripe E units and the slogan “Water Level Route.” McGonigal had grown up in suburban Philadelphia and was drawn to GG1s and keystones and the platforms at Haverford as much as his neighbors were to cheesesteaks and the Phillies. Deep down, we both admired each other’s faves. Rob even commissioned me to write a story about my beloved Twilight Limited, NYC’s crack Chicago–Detroit train. I can say that this avid Central fan never felt cheated in the pages of CT. In RSM’s magazine, both companies got their due, the mark of a skilled editor.

• What happens on the road stays on the road: Amid the press of deadlines, Rob can be a super-serious guy, exhibiting the kind of occasional grumpiness that reminds me of my days in newspaper newsrooms. But get him out of the office and out on the highway and the deadpan comic emerges. I can’t begin to count the laughs we had crisscrossing the Midwest, losing track of trains, getting lost, and generally just flunking Railfanning 101. When your 40-hour-a-week job is writing about railroads, a weekend getaway is less about the trains than it is blowing off steam, often in ways best left unreported. So off we’d go, driving to Durand and Owosso, Mich., or catching some rare CB&Q mileage in southern Illinois, or rendezvousing with Milwaukee Road 261 up at North Fond du Lac. On a couple of cherished occasions, our fellow road warrior was J. David Ingles, my former boss and Rob’s senior editor. Rob’s dry, perceptive, and often sardonic observations about the America we saw along the way are what made these trips memorable. For me, anyway.

McGonigal and Keefe aboard Washington Chapter, NRHS, private car Dover Harbor on a Nickel Plate 765 excursion in 2015.
• Keep DPM close to your heart: If there’s one thing Rob and I deeply shared, it was our devotion to the late Trains Editor David P. Morgan, especially the magazines David produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, formative years for both Rob and me. As well as I thought I knew the magazine from that era, Rob knew it better. I made a habit of walking by his office door from time to time, muttering a memorable old Morgan headline or phrase and have Rob call out the issue. Keefe: “Boy on a Bike with Something to See!” McGonigal: “April 1971!” Keefe: “Somebody Bet on the GG1!” McGonigal: “July 1966!” And on and on. Ingles, who was always more clear-eyed about Morgan than the two of us, thought we were nuts.

Despite all this misty nostalgia, this isn’t a sad occasion for me. Rob is merely moving on to an exciting new chapter, one I’ve enjoyed myself now for nearly six years. With all his talents and curiosities, he’ll be just as productive as ever. I’m pretty sure the Pennsylvania Railroad is in for some fresh scholarship. Meanwhile, Classic Trains remains in good hands with Brian Schmidt in the editor’s chair. I’m sure Brian will put his own stamp on the magazine, and that’s going to be fun to see.

The other night I was up late, wondering what to write about Rob. Suddenly this dream occurred to me: he and I were on the platform at Englewood, Ill., sometime in the early 1950s, and at approximately 4:14 p.m. we departed eastbound on separate trains. You can guess what they were: I was on NYC 26, the Century, Rob on PRR 28, the Broadway. Minutes later, as the tracks and the trains diverged east of the Calumet River, we managed to wave to each other, me from the windows of observation car Sandy Creek, he from his perch in the lounge of Mountain View. We were both where we needed to be.

Sail on, RSM!

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