For Jim Wrinn, it was three strikes and you’re in

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Jim Wrinn relaxes in his office in 2007, not far into his tenure as Trains editor. Kathi Kube photo
Sometimes the sharp pang of missing someone comes at unexpected moments.

I was sitting on our sofa in the TV room on Saturday night, caught up in the super-hyped Final Four matchup of North Carolina and Duke. When Tar Heel guard R. J. Davis seized the final rebound to ice the game, I instinctively reached for my phone to tap out a text I’d sent to Jim Wrinn so many times before: “Down goes Dook!”

Then I reminded myself, “He’ll never see it.” I put the cell phone down. Suddenly that little bit of euphoria I felt — and I don’t even have a connection to Jim’s alma mater — slipped away.

As everyone in what Jim proudly called “Trains Nation” knows by now, we lost our Editor on March 30 after his long, courageous, ultimately inspiring battle with pancreatic cancer. In the days since, those of us who’ve worked with the man, traveled with him, written for him, and just plain enjoyed him have been grappling with an inexplicable loss. What are we going to do without his endlessly sunny outlook, his infectious love of his job?

We’ll have to find a way. So will Trains magazine. It won’t be easy, not in the wake of Jim Wrinn.

Jim’s passing left me with a swirl of memories that go back more than 45 years. I’m proud to say I was the one who hired the guy in 2004 and set him on his path of nearly 18 years at the throttle of his favorite magazine. He always called it his dream job. Looking back over the years, his ascension to the editorship seems almost inevitable.

The first time I was near Jim, we likely didn’t notice each other. We both were riding a Southern 4501 trip out of Knoxville, Tenn., in August 1975 and had climbed down from the train for a photo runby near the little town of Jellico. I was a 24-year-old ad writer for Kalmbach, he was a 14-year-old kid from Franklin, N.C. Maybe our presence that day was fortuitous: riding behind 4501 with two future Trains editors that day was none other than David P. Morgan.

The editor and two unidentified photographers at the May 2019 coming-out part of Union Pacific 4014. Kevin Keefe photo
Just 25 years later, Jim would write the definitive book on the 4501 and all the other Southern and Norfolk Southern steam trips in “Steam’s Camelot,” a must-read for anyone who cares about steam in the post-steam era. 

For Jim and me, there were more encounters to come. There was the first feature he wrote for me not long after I became editor, an excellent update in February 1993 on Southern’s former Murphy Branch. Always on the lookout for new talent, I could see that Wrinn was the real deal. His prowess as a reporter and love for the subject matter brought the story to life, and I thought “someday we have to have this guy on the staff.”

The next time I saw him was in Sacramento in June 1999 during the big Railfair celebration at the California State Railroad Museum. Jim was there among the crowds, babysitting his beloved Graham County Shay No. 1925, on loan from the North Carolina Transportation Museum. If anyone has ever exhibited more sheer joy at shoveling coal and grasping a throttle, I haven’t met them yet. He was positively giddy, and he made you feel the same way.

That’s around the time I began pursuing Jim — unsuccessfully at first. Over the space of a couple of years we had two openings on the Trains staff, and each time I invited Jim to apply. He was an ideal candidate: professional journalist, knowledgeable railfan, longtime Trains reader. But each time I called, he reluctantly — very reluctantly — demurred, for reasons that say a lot about his character.

You see, Jim’s mother, Kate, was getting up in years and still lived in Franklin, not all that far from where Jim worked as a staffer for the Charlotte Observer. He just couldn’t see being that far away from her, not as she was getting up in years. How could you argue with love of family? Understanding but disappointed, I moved on to other candidates.

Fast forward to 2004. After nearly four years of distinguished work, Editor Mark W. Hemphill was leaving Trains for an industry career. As publisher I was obligated to step in for a while as acting editor, all the while searching for the next person for the big chair. This time I checked in with just about anyone I could think of — except Jim Wrinn. After all, he’d already turned me down twice.

Then the phone rang one day. On the line was Mike Foy, a Boston-based editorial recruiter whom Kalmbach had been using for years. Mike was always a pleasure to work with and had extraordinary instincts for ferreting out talent, no matter how hard the position was to fill. I always looked forward to his latest “find.” But I wasn’t prepared for what came next.

Wrinn and Keefe celebrate the retirement of Classic Trains Editor Rob McGonigal (right) in October 2021.
“What about this guy Jim Wrinn from North Carolina?” said Mike. “You know him?” 

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’ll confess, the first word that came to mind was “ka-ching!” — the easiest commission Foy ever made. After I explained to Mike how I knew Jim, I called the man himself. It was a memorable conversation.

“Wrinn! What gives?” I said, flabbergasted to hear he was finally interested. We both laughed and then he explained: unbeknownst to me, his mom had died recently and he no longer felt so tied to the Tar Heel state. But having turned me down twice before, he was sheepish about trying again. “I figured you might have hung up on me, and I wouldn’t have blamed you,” he said. 

Of course, no such thing would have happened. I was delighted to know he was interested, and available. There were a couple of other excellent candidates — you know who you are out there — but Jim seemed a natural choice. He checked off a bunch of boxes important personally to me: daily newspaper experience, a drive to “get the story,” obviously a positive personality, a deep love of steam and history, unafraid of responsibility, and an appreciation of Trains magazine that went back to childhood. Three strikes and he was in!

Since Jim’s death last week, thousands of messages of grief and love have poured out across railfan social media and into the email inboxes of Trains magazine’s staff members, as well as mine. All of which makes me feel good about the decision I made more than 17 years ago. 

Reflecting on his editorship, Jim once wrote that “nobody ever had a better time in this job than me.” Having worked one way or the other with every Trains editor since D.P.M. himself, I can say Jim was 100% right. How fortunate that all of us have been along with him for the ride.

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