Mike Schafer and me

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Mike Schafer's introduction in Kalmbach's employee newsletter in 1971.
Sometimes you meet lifelong friends and colleagues in surprising places. 

For instance, on a Saturday night in 1972 I found myself taking an elevator up to the top floor of Detroit’s venerable Fort Shelby Hotel, there to see a Michigan Railroad Club program being presented by an up-and-coming star of railroad photography. 

I already knew the name Mike Schafer from his photo credits in Trains magazine. You might remember his bravura feature from the July 1972 issue entitled “The Case of the Elusive C-Liners,” a classic that can still serve as a template for any railfan road warrior story. Now I was going to meet a man whose photographic chops were at least matched by his ability to write. 

Schafer was not much older than me (I was 21) and we immediately clicked. So much so that he accepted my invitation to come to my own group, the Michigan State University Railroad Club, and present the same program a few months later. That show, “Chicago Is . . . My Kind of Railroad Town,” blew me away with its use of dual projectors and synchronized sound, something I’d never witnessed before. The show featured a number of photographers, including a healthy dose of Schafer’s own bold images, plus some music by Aaron Copland. Awesome.  

Opening spread of Mike's first big feature, July 1972 Trains.
At that point I would never have expected that Schafer and I would work together off and on for the next 40-plus years, but that’s just what happened. Three years after we met, I went to work in Kalmbach’s sales department, writing ad copy, some of it for a number of projects Mike worked on while he was a Kalmbach Books editor. Back then we were among a small group of “young Turks” at 1027 N. Seventh St., trying in our own way to push the company’s old guard toward new ways of doing things.

When I left to go back to newspapers in May 1976, I was writing copy for Mike’s “Railroads You Can Model,” one of the best how-to books Kalmbach ever published. By 1979, we were working together again, me as editor of Passenger Train Journal, he as art director. Four years later he would take over the whole shebang. 

Now I hear Schafer is retiring after many successful years at the helm as PTJ’s editor. White River Productions announced his big move last week, naming the eminently capable Kevin Holland as Mike’s successor. 

Using the r-word in connection with Mike sounds so strange. At Kalmbach in 1975, we were comparative kids. Now here we are, both of us, looking way back. Inevitably, some great memories come flooding back, some silly, some definitely not. 

I remember an afternoon in 1981 when Schaf and I were putting PTJ together in the rented basement of an insurance company in Waukesha, about the only digs Publisher Kevin McKinney could afford. I was working nights on the Milwaukee Sentinel copy desk and coming out to PTJ during the day, often bringing our family dog, a female named Zorro. The basement was spacious, plenty of space for a dog to roam.

Then one afternoon I spotted it: a big pile of dog poop in the middle of the room. I was livid. Our dog was perfectly housebroken, so what was this?! I gently pulled Zorro over to the pile, stuck her face in it, and commenced to scolding her.

That’s when I heard the snickering over in a corner. It was Schafer, near to convulsing. The poop was plastic. A classic gag. I’d been suckered. After apologizing to the dog — who remained clueless — I vowed to get back at Schafer. But I don’t think I ever did.

Schafer today, out railfanning on Chicago's Metra. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Much more memorable, perhaps, was the night of Feb. 17, 1990, when I found myself with Mike in the lobby of 30 Rock. Yes, that one —NBC headquarters in New York. Mike had struck up a friendship with Jan Kasoff, PTJ reader and lead cameraman for “Saturday Night Live,” and Jan had invited Mike and a guest to attend the show. In a massive gesture of friendship, Schaf chose me. 

It was already a memorable trip, as Schaf and I had gone out on Amtrak’s Broadway Limited to attend the EastRail photography show in New Jersey. But nothing prepared us for the thrill of SNL. When we lined up in the lobby, someone called out our names and we were ushered into the elevators ahead of everyone else. Jan had secured us seats on the main floor, right next to his camera, just six feet from the edge of the stage. 

What a night to be at SNL! The host was Tom Hanks and music was provided by Aerosmith, including the band’s uproarious turn on the “Wayne’s World” skit with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. That night Aerosmith debuted its new single, “Janie’s Got a Gun,” and although it’s not a particular favorite of mine, whenever it comes out of the car speakers it gets turned up to 11. 

Thanks, Mike, for letting me tag along.

Much more meaningfully, I must declare my admiration for Mike’s long career as a writer, editor, and photographer. Especially the latter. From those very first photos of Mike’s from the early 1970s, I saw him as someone who got about as much out of a frame of slide film as anyone in the field. He remains a master of the form, both as artist and technician. When we worked together on PTJ, I tried to get his photos on the cover every chance we got.

The California Zephyr near Earlville, Ill., in January 1970. Mike Schafer photo
 A good example of his work is the accompanying photo of the California Zephyr, rolling westward into twilight on the Burlington near Earlville, Ill., in January 1970, which ran on the cover of Trains in December 1977. Mike fairly froze getting this image — and wisely chose the going-away perspective — but he is always about getting the shot, no matter the elements.  

Don’t take my word for it. One of Mike’s good friends is Mel Patrick, a bonafide superstar of railroad photography (and a companion of Mike’s on that Canadian C-Liner trip), and Mel has this to say about his old friend: “On a personal level, Mike’s creative and artistic talents opened my eyes on what to capture on film. You could learn a lot just standing in his shadow.”

Well said, Mel. And well done, Mike! One of the great things about writing and shooting as a profession is you never have to stop. Schaf assures me there will be lots more to come from him in the years ahead. In that context, there’s no such thing as the r-word. 

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