Neil Besougloff: Good guy, great Editor

Posted by Bob Keller
on Monday, August 17, 2020

One of the largest projects we accomplished was the issue celebrating Lionel’s 100th Anniversary in our January 2000 issue. This was a group photo of all the Kamlbach staffers who supported the magazine, from marketing and circulation to the art team. CTT staffers around the cake are Left to Right, Neil, Carl Swanson, myself, Katie Sanders, and Jim Riccioli.

I started at Classic Toy Trains magazine in 1996. Roger Carp had been moved over to the Books Division to guide the production of toy train reference books on the schedule. Founding Editor Dick Christianson was in charge of books and Roger Carp had been moved over there to shepherd a virtual tidal wave of toy train books on the horizon. So we were short an Editor.

Day to day operations were supervised by Mark Thompson, who was Kalmbach’s pinch hitter for gaps in editorial staff, and Dick sat in on the staff meetings. Things functioned fairly well, but we still needed a chief to set the direction and flavor of the magazine. Neil Besougloff filled that gap.

I was stunned when I heard of Neil’s death. Heck, he was younger than I am and he was living it easy in Mexico. It took me some time to process it all. While he was my boss for 10 years, when he became Editor of Model Railroader, he stayed in his old office, right next to mine, so he was a “neighbor” for another decade. So it wasn’t like we became strangers.

Neil’s impact on CTT was significant and I think he was the right guy for that moment in time. Neil wasn’t a model railroader, though he had HO when he was a kid. So he “got” the hobby. Other than some orientation of who the players were in the industry, he was pretty effective from the get-go.

CTT was at a critical decision point. We were covering Large Scale, Standard Gauge, O gauge and S. The only HO content were references to Lionel, Flyer, or Marx HO lines. Our roots were firmly in the past. However, that wasn’t all that was happening. The O gauge market was still rapidly expanding and it was a pretty exciting time.

A new direction

Before Neil arrived I sat in a meeting about future magazine content. I suggested more space for product news and reviews. Someone at the meeting actually said, “Nobody is interested in the new stuff, they want the old stuff.” Except most of the ads in our magazine were selling modern products, and modern gear was certainly visible on layout photos submitted by readers. While nostalgia was certainly an important part of the mystique of toy trains, more people were building layouts to run their trains, not just watch them gathering dust on a shelf.

When Neil settled in, he did the math and began our move toward at least equal coverage of operation and newly available products. Oh, we didn’t reduce the postwar content; we added space for coverage of the new gear. He was correct in gauging that the future was in running trains, not just preserving vintage models.

Another change was a test track.

When I tested locomotives, I literally had to connect a loop of track on the floor of the Model Railroader workshop. To test trains I was either sitting or on my knees. I won’t tell you how we did the high-speed test, but it involved a plastic bag full of shipping popcorn. If I had a quarter for every time I heard someone who was getting a tour say something about my getting paid to sit on the floor and “play trains,” I could get coffee at Starbucks for a month.

The MR guys were pretty protective of their space and we didn’t even have a workbench. I made the case of our needing a test track and a spot to do some basic maintenance. The payoff would be that we could standardize the testing routine so that every O or S gauge locomotive when through the same break-in and evaluation cycle … that didn’t depend on tubular track of the workshop’s linoleum floor sliding apart.

I sweetened the deal by offering the bench work from my own layout as the test track. Neil got us the space, and we installed the layout and added carpet to minimize the noise from O and S gauge loops. With a few exceptions, CTT has had the same testing cycle or over 20 years – all engines faces the same standard.

The “Look”

Neil always liked to say that when a guy read a car magazine, he wanted to see a muscle car, not a family station wagon. Accordingly, he set out to capture the most visually appealing layouts – regardless whether they were Prewar, Postwar, or Modern Era.

He tapped into Kalmbach’s superbly talented Art Department to come up with a range of templates to best show the fantastic layouts of our readers. He also encouraged them to think out of the box when presenting non-layout features stories. He encouraged colorful accents, intricate track plans, and spectacular photos got enlarged!

The News

With a newspaper background he regularly experiments with how to take us beyond just product photos. Although he discovered there wasn’t hobby news every day, he experimented with a variety of things such as News & Notes, “A few minutes with,” guest commentary through “Point of View,” and of course, the popular Views from the Underground by Lou Palumbo.

He ramped up the “How-To” with Tips-Tools & Techniques, and articles by writers such as Dennis Brennan, Peter Riddle, postwar repair stories by John Grams/Ray L. Plummer and others. More than once told me the magazine is one part “eye-candy” but there also needs to be a component with information the reader can use immediately or in the near future. This might be it a construction story, or a piece how to repaint something, or even basic wiring. Useful information explained as clearly as possible (with solid illustrations if needed).

Neil savored going to York. It was an exhausting event, but he enjoyed interacting with our readers and hearing what they liked and things that they didn’t  like. He enjoyed looking at layout photos people brought by the booth, and if somebody had a story to tell, or a suggestion to help his or her fellow railroaders, he was open to considering it for publication.

My favorite image of Neil at York was actually at the airport for the return trip – trying to get a set of Jersey Central passenger cars through as a carry on!

Summing it up

 Neil created a vision of the magazine that changed with the hobby itself. He continued Postwar coverage, though he realized at some point, everything important that could be said would have been said. He also understood the connection between the magazine and the hobby that most of our readers held near to their hearts for decades.

He sought to document the hobby while being entertaining. He made CTT a solid success in a time of transition.

This was a circular from the Advertising staff to potential advertisers. Left to right are Roger Carp, myself, Neil, and Jim Riccioli.

Neil moved to Mexico to reside in a town catering to American retirees and tourists. He came back to Waukesha a few times. This is the last time I saw him. This was at The Emperor’s Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant that is a favorite of Kalmbach employees. He was as happy as I had ever seen him, and he was living his dream.

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