Penn Central, Conrail vets remember Dick Hasselman

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Richard B. (Dick) Hasselman in 1981. Conrail photo
I never met Dick Hasselman, but I’d sure as hell heard of him. Living in a Penn Central backwater in Michigan back in the early 1970s, I’d gotten to know a number of local railroaders, and many of them referred one time or another to the respected but feared VP-transportation. You got the feeling they prayed for plenty of warning should Hasselman decide to drop by.

Then, last week, I got a chance to know him, albeit from afar. Richard B. Hasselman died Dec. 5 at the age of 95, and Trains magazine asked me to write an obituary. Delving into this man’s life, I was intrigued by the trajectory of his remarkable career, first at New York Central, then, in succession, PC and Conrail.

The most basic details alone are impressive: from Yale University to NYC tower operator to freight brakeman to various general manager posts to PC vice president-transportation, all in short order. Then, in 1976, he ascended to the position of senior vice president-operations at Conrail.

Reflecting on Hasselman’s life, writer Fred Frailey asked the pertinent question: “Can you name anyone else in Class I railroading who went from freight brakeman to VP-transportation in 16 years?” I certainly can’t.

Here’s what journalist Rush Loving Jr. had to say about Hasselman in his book “The Men Who Loved Trains” (Indiana University Press, 2006). It puts the man in context. 

“Hasselman was an operating man of rare talents. (Conrail Chairman) Stanley Crane, for whom he once worked, dubbed him the best operating man in the business. ‘He was so smart he could tell you where every switch was,’ said one of his colleagues. ‘Basically, you had a guy who micromanaged.’ His trains, pulled by big blue locomotives with the giant Conrail C emblazoned on their noses, rumbled every hour of the night and day around the mountain curves of Pennsylvania and across the farmlands of Illinois . . . and to a man like Hasselman they were an extension of himself.”

As I gathered information for the obituary, I began hearing from a number of Hasselman’s former employees and associates, with stories too good to leave behind in my email. Here, then, is a selection of what they had to say:

In a pamphlet for Conrail employees, Hasselman stressed the importance of knowing the rules.
Former Conrail executive Larry DeYoung remembers a railroader who expected his subordinates to go the extra mile, just like he did.

“Hasselman would take calls from supervisors at any level,” says DeYoung. “One assistant division engineer in Dearborn, Mich., wanted to get authorization to do a project. Everyone approved it till it got to RBH, when it was turned down, three times after revisions. Finally, the guy got on a plane to Philadelphia and walked in to Hasselman’s office, where he was pleasantly welcomed. Dick said, ‘I know why you’re here. It’s approved.’ The ADE sort of stammered and Dick said, ‘Yeah, I know, you came all the way here to headquarters and then I just approved it. But I wanted to see just how strongly you believed in that project. Now go get it started.’”

As is so often true of senior executives, the imperious front gradually wears away — provided you perform — and gives way to lasting affection. That was the case with Arthur Ouslander, retired now after finishing his career as an assistant VP at Conrail.

“Dick Hasselman was one of the first senior people to welcome me onboard and made me feel part of the team,” says Ouslander. “He was particularly interested in my (successful) efforts to get the state of Delaware to pay for all at grade crossing maintenance. As time went on and we moved on to other issues, I got my share of Hasselgrams. The first few were terrifying. However, I soon realized his bark was worse than his bite, and afterward, as I learned to give as well as I got, we enjoyed a great working relationship. After I left Conrail, he regularly emailed me at home and we had some great discussions. There will never be another Dick Hasselman. And that is incredibly sad.”

A similar experience awaited Paul Catania, a former real estate manager at Conrail and today a principal in the property and right-of-way services firm ReLTEK LLC. Thrown into the aftermath of a famous disaster — the fearsome January 4, 1987, collision of Conrail locomotives and an Amtrak train at Chase, Md. — Catania was obligated to meet with Hasselman at Conrail’s Philadelphia HQ. 

“I was a little baby railroader, on the job for just a small handful of years,” Catania says. “Being in the real estate department and not in the operations department, I had never met Hasselman, but had certainly heard all of the stories, which certainly connoted any involvement with him would probably not be a fun-filled event!

“Along comes the now infamous Chase collision and I have to draw a composite map that explains the boundaries between Conrail property and Amtrak property at the crash site. So, I go about my business, research all of my records and draw my map. It’s all color coded and hatched and such, with a nice title block and legend and all that stuff. The map makes it into my AVP’s office and he summons me to ask some questions. In the middle, he says you seem to understand this better than the rest of us, so I’m going to need you to take this over to Hasselman’s office, drop it off, and answer any questions they might have.”

Catania continues: “So, here I go, making the walk from Walnut Street to 6 Penn, wondering just what I’m getting into. As I get off the elevator, I’m met by a bunch of long faces coming from the general direction I was headed. Outside the office door, I can hear lots of irritated, loud voices. Soon, the door opens and out walk more of those same long faces I witnessed at the elevator. The receptionist asks who I am and why I’m there, and I explain that I’m from Real Estate and I have the property information for the Chase incident.

“Before I know it, I’m being led into what I perceive as the lion’s den, nervous as hell. It’s then, practically shaking in my shoes, that I’m greeted by a surprisingly soft voice coming from a rather grandfatherly looking man seated behind a huge desk. After some very quick introductions, he leads me to a conference table where I lay out the map for him. I offer a general explanation, he asks a few questions and complimented me on a job well done, saying that the map shows exactly what he had hoped and exactly what he needed. All in that same soft voice. Total shock. I may have been the only one to leave that office with a smile that day!”

The photographer worked for the Harrisburg Patriot-News when he photographed Hasselman aboard a Reading-Pittsburgh OCS train, March 1983. Dan Cupper photo
Frank Tatnall, a former Conrail marketing executive and stalwart in Pennsylvania Railroad historical circles, often planned Office Car Specials (OCS) for outings of the marketing and coal departments. These special trains were often considered a hassle (no pun intended), but Tatnall knew the boss had a soft spot for them. 

“An especially memorable trip in the late ’80s would take us on several interesting branch lines but we would never be more than 30 miles from Philadelphia City Hall during the entire 12-hour day,” Tatnall recalls. “We would visit the Budd plant, Marcus Hook, the High Line, Abrams, Norristown, Trenton, Bordentown, Pavonia, and Carneys Point, N.J., and only once would the power have to run around the train.

“When I presented the trip outline to Bill Wulfhorst, who was in charge of all passenger matters involving Conrail, he looked at me and said, ‘what do you crazy railfans want to do now? This is another one of your nutty trips!’ I said, ‘Bill, it’s a good plan, just send it up to Mr. Hasselman.’ As usually happened with these ventures, it came back approved, which of course caused Bill to simply shake his head in disbelief. But the trip ran fine.”

What the OCS trips revealed, clearly, is that Dick Hasselman’s passion for railroading went beyond the job description. “Dick was a closet railfan,” says John Fiorilla, an attorney with the New Jersey-based firm of Dyer & Peterson and a former legal counsel to Conrail, among many other positions. 

“I chaired the National Railway Historical Society convention in 1988 and we wanted to bring Nickel Plate steam locomotive 765 and its train down from Buffalo to New Brunswick and then on to Harrisburg,” recalls Fiorilla. “I asked Dick if Conrail could handle this and he said he liked the idea but would need to build a run-around track on the old CNJ to handle it. I told him NRHS could pay the $100,000 fee for moving the train — fuel and labor — but not for track. He said, ‘don’t worry,’ he would tell the board he needed it for freight and they would let him build it. And he did! We ran our train!” 

I’ll leave it to Frank Tatnall to make the obvious point: “The railroad industry of today could certainly profit from the expertise of Dick Hasselman.”

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