Four phone calls I’ll never forget

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Engineer Bill Withuhn puts PRR K4s 1361 through its paces in July 1987. Kevin P. Keefe photo
A magazine editor’s phone never stops ringing. Contributors call with story ideas. Art department people call with stuff they want you to look at. Production managers call about deadlines, and ad sales people are always trying to get one more into the magazine. And at Kalmbach, there was always another meeting, and another after that. Looking back to my time as Trains editor in the 1990s, all those calls tend to disappear from memory.

But not always. Every once in a while, that beeping phone brought extraordinary conversations. Looking back, I can think of four in particular. 

I hadn’t been at Trains very long when I heard from an old friend, Bill Withuhn, then the curator of transportation at the Smithsonian Institution. It was July 1987 and my boss, J. David Ingles, had assigned me to cover that year’s National Railway Historical Society convention in Roanoke, Va., scene of the famous side-by-side run of Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 No. 611 and 2-6-6-4 No. 1218. 

In those days, Bill was moonlighting as the engineer on a very special steam locomotive, and it wasn’t one of the N&W engines. “Hey, Kev, it’s Bill. I’m guessing you’re going to the NRHS convention. I’ve got an idea for something you might do on the way.”

Then came the magic words: “We’re taking PRR K4 1361 up to Bellefonte, Pa., on July 26. How’d you like to go up there with us, and maybe ride in the cab?”

Bill was talking to a kid who as a teenager had a print of Grif Teller’s famous “On Time” painting of a K4 hanging in his bedroom, a kid who regarded Pennsylvania Railroad steam almost as reverently as his hometown railroad New York Central. I pinched myself, gave Bill a breathless “yes,” then walked across the hall to thank J.D.I. sending me to NRHS. And the ride a couple weeks later out of Altoona up to Bellefonte? Everything you might imagine it to be. 

Norfolk & Western 611 heads out of Irondale, Ala., on Dec. 3, 1994, the first leg of its farewell trip to Chattanooga. Steve Glischinski photo
Steam was often the subject when the phone rang. That was the case on a Friday in late October 1994 when a woman on the end of the line said, “I’m calling for Jim McClellan at Norfolk Southern. Can you take the call?”

I was more than happy to. Jim and I had known each other for about 20 years and I admired his much-celebrated career as a railroad strategist extraordinaire. That afternoon he was in charge of strategic planning for NS and his company was in the news for recently announcing the end of its legendary steam program. I didn’t imagine this involved him. But it did. 

“Hi Kevin. I know you’ve heard about our plans for the steam engines. Chairman David Goode has asked me to fly out and meet with you about it. Are you free for dinner on Sunday night?”

I was a bit flabbergasted, but I said, “certainly.” It turns out Goode was concerned enough about the backlash NS was getting that he thought a person-to-person explanation to Trains would help. I assured Jim we had no plans to bash the railroad: NS and, before that, Southern Railway had given us something like 30 years of good times at the cost of millions of dollars. Crushed as we were to lose the steam program, I couldn’t see trashing NS over a business decision.

Two days later, on a Sunday night, I met Jim at the airport and we decamped to a favorite Italian restaurant on Milwaukee’s east side — Mimma’s on Brady Street, now gone — and talked and talked until closing time, mostly about everything except the steam program. It was a memorable evening for me. A few weeks later I flew down to Birmingham and rode the last scheduled run of the 611, a bittersweet experience I recounted in “The Walk of a Queen” in the March 1995 issue.

Opening spread of the BNSF Transcon story in the November 2000 issue of Trains featured a photo by John B. Corns.
Maybe the most unusual call came from a public relations assistant at BNSF. It came in early May 2000, as we were planning Trains’ 60th anniversary issue for the following November. The magazine had a tradition of coming up with anniversary themes, and this time we decided to focus on the number 60: stories about a passenger train No. 60, Black River & Western 2-8-0 No. 60, a 60-mile-long short line, pictures taken at Milepost 60 . . . you get the idea.

For the leadoff story, I’d arranged with photographer John B. Corns to join me on a three-day trek across New Mexico and Texas, renting a car and chasing BNSF’s Transcon line from parallel U.S. 60. Seemed like a winner, especially when BNSF told us we could skip flying to Albuquerque and ride a business car from Kansas City, Mo., to Belen, N.M., behind a hot intermodal train. “Will that work?” asked BNSF Vice President-Corporate Relations Richard Russack. I tried to muffle my railfan enthusiasm when I blurted out, “Yes!”

The next call was even better. A few days later, the phone rang and a BNSF p.r. assistant asked a simple question: “Are either you or Mr. Corns allergic to lobster?”

I waited until we hung up before I laughed out loud. I confess I ran down the hall to brag to the rest of the staff, most of whom gave me the dirty looks I deserved. It was pretty clear: There would be some memorable dining aboard that business car. Sure enough, a few nights later John and I joined a BNSF handler in the dining room of the biz car, luxuriating in New York strip and lobster as we put our train together at Argentine.

The next morning at about 5:30, John B. got what I thought was a fantastic shot taken from the back platform, somewhere in the Texas Panhandle, as an eastbound freight roared past in the opposite direction. The image led off our BNSF story, “Built for Speed. 

In 'Hot Shot Eastbound,' O. Winston Link famously photographed an N&W A-class 2-6-6-4 passing a drive-in movie in Iaeger, W.Va.
There was one more call about Norfolk & Western steam, and it was a doozy. One day in the summer of 1995, I was looking over some magnificent black-and-white prints by the master of nighttime photography, O. Winston Link. The Trains library had amassed quite a collection of Link’s work back in the 1950s, all submitted by the photographer himself, and many of them resided in the “Oversize Prints” cabinet in the library. We were doing a story about Link for the October issue and had an agreement with Link and his colleague Thomas H. Garver to gradually return all the prints once we had published them. Tom, an experienced fine-art curator and writer, was assisting Link in consolidating his prints. 

Tom and I talked regularly, but the turn his call took that day rather stunned me. One of the prints I had on my desk arguably was Link’s most famous: a portrait of an N&W A-class engine roaring past a drive-in movie at Iaeger, W.Va., a young couple seated in a convertible in the foreground, watching a jet fighter plane on the big screen. The image has been seen by millions in one form or another.

Tom wanted to know more about the print we had, so I explained something unusual about it: the jet on the movie screen was a separate small print, glued somewhat crudely onto the larger image. Once printed in the magazine, you could never tell it was a composite shot. “But there it is,” I told Tom, “glued right on there. That’s unusual, right Tom?”

There was a moment of silence, then Tom said, “You have that print?” 

It turns out I was holding a Link holy grail. The photographer had later created a single negative of the Iaeger photograph, but this early version — called a collaged print — was exceedingly rare. I was aware that Link’s work had lately begun to garner national attention, so I asked Tom the obvious question: “What’s this thing worth?” When Tom said “upwards of $25,000 to some collectors,” I got a little nervous. Something of that value shouldn’t be sitting in a pile on my desk.

Long story short, I tracked down a huge file folder to protect the print, hid the print behind my desk, and arranged with Tom to come over from Madison and pick it up as soon as possible. Which he did. The print was never Kalmbach’s, so I was glad to get it out of our hands. And to this day, whenever I see the Iaeger shot — surprisingly often — I think of Tom’s call.

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