By William C. Vantuono, Editor
I could publish a book about my friend and colleague, Robert G. Lewis (actually, we did two of them together). Though we worked side by side at Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corp.’s New York City headquarters only three short years—he brought me to Railway Age in 1992, and retired in 1995—I feel as though I’ve known him a lifetime. I also thought Bob would live forever. One tends to think that way about people who, regardless of their physical age, never seem to slow down, and who approach life, and their life’s vocation, with an enthusiasm that’s hard to find. Bob made me feel old at times, and he was old enough to be my grandfather!
In Bob’s case, his vocation was railroading—working in the industry (for the Pennsylvania, beginning in 1934), writing about it (at Railway Age, beginning in 1947), documenting it (as a prolific photojournalist), but most of all, enjoying it, and sharing his enjoyment with his many industry friends and colleagues (below). I don’t know exactly how many miles Bob accumulated traveling by rail all over the world, but as you’ll discover in the next article, it’s probably around three million, or roughly 12 round-trips to the moon.
One of the many things that Bob taught me about journalism was to avoid using superlatives—words like “largest” or “fastest” or “heaviest” or “unique”—because you could rarely be 100% sure if you were right.
Well, Bob, I’m afraid that I’ve got to break your rule just this one time. You see, there’s only one word that I feel truly describes you: Unique.
One person who would certainly agree with me is Bob’s good friend Tony Hiss, a former New Yorker magazine writer, and author of In Motion: The Experience of Travel and All Aboard with E. M. Frimbo, World’s Greatest Railroad Buff, among other works.
Bob Lewis peacefully embarked on his final journey on Jan. 6, 2011. Rest in peace, my friend, and thanks for everything.
Mr. Lewis meets Mr. Frimbo
By Tony Hiss
I’ll never forget one of my first sights of my wonderful friend Bob Lewis—he was upside-down, standing on his head. This was more than 30 years ago: Half-a-dozen distinguished businessmen had been gathered by Bob outside on the open platform of a 1920s observation car at the end of an otherwise ordinary-looking commuter train making its daily, 66-mile run across northern New Jersey, from Newark to Phillipsburg through what was then almost a storybook landscape of woods and meadows. Because everyone stayed outside the whole way, we got to hear leaves rustling as shadows lengthened and smell the sweetness of newly mown grass.
Otherwise ordinary-looking—this, as I learned, was the essence of Bob Lewis, who had organized the expedition, which ended in a steak dinner that Bob had also arranged. A brilliant organizer as a magazine publisher, he was equally brilliant at never surrendering a moment of life to eternity before extracting its essence. So a commuter trip could become an adventure; a commonplace suburban landscape could turn itself inside out and reveal its magic; it was as extraordinary as looking through the window of a Russian Easter egg.
The head-standing, for instance. It took me a while to realize on that run to Phillipsburg that I was in the middle of a genteel, cordial, but intricately plotted rivalry that was by then already decades old. I was only a young journalist and had been brought along by Bob’s good friend, my imperious New Yorker magazine colleague, Rogers E. M. Whitaker, better known to New Yorker readers as E. M. Frimbo, World’s Greatest Railroad Buff. Frimbo over a lifetime rode almost three million miles on the trains of the world; I was Frimbo’s Boswell, and had always thought that my mentor stood alone. But although Rogers was too proud and Bob too modest to mention it, it became clear from listening to the other men on the train that a mileage race was on and that Bob was at least a close second to Frimbo. (Perhaps, near the end of his days, Bob may even have tied or surpassed Frimbo.) Both men thought nothing of flying 1,000 miles just to ride over ten or twenty miles of tracks that were brand-new to them—a feat that Bob would celebrate by standing on his head (Frimbo was too staid to join him). And Bob would also stand on his head just to celebrate having a particularly good time—as on the commuter run where I met him.
Later on, as I got to know him better, I came to understand that because Bob gave equal standing in his mind to enjoyment and industriousness, he had an unparalleled knowledge of railroads and transportation in general—the history, the missteps, the possibilities, the ways that even daily travel could transform people’s lives. Whenever I started to write something—a New Yorker piece on bringing light rail to New York, for instance, or even my latest book, In Motion: The Experience of Travel—Bob was always The Source, the first person I would call in order to get grounded and get started. In recent years—thinking about our country’s neglect of railroads—I began to think that it was America that was standing on its head, while Bob Lewis was right-side up. Now it’s up to the rest of us to keep his optimism and enthusiasm alive.
Bob Lewis: An appreciation
By Arthur J. McGinnis, Jr., President and Chairman, Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corp.
When Robert G. Lewis became publisher of Railway Age in 1956, the magazine was facing the most severe competitive challenge in its 100 years of publication. Postwar upstart Modern Railroads was snapping at our heels for the leadership position. Bob immediately became part of an editorial/business team dedicated to holding the line.
That team consisted of my father, Arthur J. McGinnis, Sr., a principal owner of the Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corp. and later head of the company; James G. Lynne, editor of Railway Age and another major shareholder; and Joe W. Kizzia, executive editor.
Bob became a key player as the team produced (and successfully sold to advertisers) a series of special reports proposing solutions to critical problems facing the industry.
The “Outrage” issue in 1957, reprinted nearly one million times, was credited with helping pass the first deregulation legislation; The “Trap” issue in 1958 laid the groundwork for the fight against crushing working rules. Other reports examined everything from the specter of railroad nationalization to passenger train losses that threatened to undermine the freight side of railroading.
Bob was a part of all of this, finding time for such other publishing initiatives as founding International Railway Journal, 50 years old this year and flourishing. In 1968, he was instrumental in Simmons-Boardman’s acquisition of The Railway Educational Bureau, 112 years old this year and, with Simmons-Boardman Books, also flourishing. In 1991, Bob and I acquired Modern Railroads. All of this helped secure Simmons-Boardman as the world’s leading provider of railway information.
When Bob left the company in 1995, he left a legacy of editorial entrepreneurship and business integrity—a combination that brought Railway Age a few years ago to its 150th birthday and continues today in the capable hands of Publisher Robert P. DeMarco.
Following, some friends and colleagues share their memories of Bob Lewis.
Bob Lewis and Luther Miller had the great foresight and courage to set up International Railway Journal, even at a time when the future of the railroad industry looked rather bleak. IRJ has been a great success and is now one of the leading railway magazines in the world.
David Briginshaw, Editor-in-Chief, International Railway Journal
A little over 20 years ago, as I was leaving The Bank of New York to start my own company, I approached Bob Lewis at Railway Age with an idea for a regular financial column. As he was with every new idea, Bob was positive from the beginning, and we started what is today “The Financial Edge.” Other innovations followed, including our annual Railroad Financial Desk Book and the Guide to Equipment Leasing. Without Bob’s support, these ideas would have gone nowhere.
Tony Kruglinski, Railroad Financial Corp.
During my 21 years as head of Simmons-Boardman’s Railway Educational Bureau, Bob Lewis, who was instrumental in bringing the REB into the company, was consistently helpful in our successful efforts to bring expanded education opportunities to many thousands of railroad people. Our book publishing division took great pride six years ago in publishing the photographic memoir that Bob prepared with the assistance of Bill Vantuono and Robert Lielich.
One of the greatest honors bestowed upon Ferrovias Guatemala was Bob Lewis’s visit on the occasion of our first anniversary trip, a doubleheaded steam special in January of 2001. On behalf of Ferrovias Guatemala, we regret the passing of not only a friend but one of our biggest fans. In classic Bob Lewis style, he outlived our time as a functioning railway.
Henry Posner III, Chairman, Ferrovias Guatemala
Bob Lewis loved railroading and likely anything with parallel rails. My fondest memory was when I mounted an exhibit of his photography at an RSA show in the 1990s. Amsted Rail/Brenco sponsored it, which allowed me to visit Bob at his Florida home in Ormond By The Sea. Hearing Bob recount his railroad life with texture and depth to me personally, punctuated by a childlike laugh as he remembered things he had not shared in decades, was a few steps closer to heaven. I relished my privileged position and soaked it all in like a sponge.
Mike Edwards, President/Partner, iIRX
Bob Lewis was infectious while communicating his love and enthusiasm to everybody he encountered. I was born into the industry the son of a Pennsylvania Railroad signal engineer and came into the supply industry in 1955. I soon was involved with Bob in RSSI activities; as a board member, he was counselor and mentor. He had sought me out because of beginning his career working with PRR General Manager William C Higginbottom, my uncle, in Philadelphia. Bob’s understanding of the technical and philosophical foundations of what make the industry great inspired us all to use our talents in a very positive manner. We could never ask for a better friend. His memory is an inspiration in all we do.
Jim Higginbottom, The Okonite Co.
Bob Lewis’s fifth appendage was his camera, from his first Brownie in 1930 to the latest in film technology. He had an eye for composition and most of his pictures were priceless documentaries of railroad history. Of the tens of thousands of photos he took, he could remember most of the details of each one. It was an honor and privilege to work with him and Bill Vantuono to publish Bob’s best pictures and memories in the book Off the Beaten Track.
Robert H. Leilich
I knew Bob Lewis for almost 40 years. His was an extraordinarily genial personality, and at any kind of gathering of railroad people, Bob always seemed to be one of the best known—and liked—people there.
William D. Middleton
In 2006, Railway Age assembled the Sesquicentennial Limited excursion train to celebrate 150 years of publication. At one point during the trip, I remarked to Bob that with us were men representing more than 150 years of railroad writing: Bill Middleton, Bill Vantuono, Joe Kizzia, Luther Miller, and Bob Lewis himself—grinning like a kid.
Five words best describe Bob Lewis: soft spoken, witty, charming, encyclopedic. He will be missed.
Frank N. Wilner