Remembering Jim Wrinn

Jim Wrinn in the engineer’s seat of Shelly Materials SD18M No. 421 on April 23, 2011

Jim Wrinn was a giant in the world of railfanning. If you need proof just read the dozens of tributes that have been posted on his Facebook page since his death became known on Wednesday.

Those accounts of the second-longest serving editor-in-chief of Trains magazine are accompanied by photographs of Wrinn in locomotive cabs and watching or photographing trains from numerous locations around the country.

What I will remember first and foremost, though, about Wrinn is not a photograph he took of a steam locomotive or a story he wrote about a railroad or even an experience he shared involving railfanning.

It won’t be the presentation he gave to the Akron Railroad Club n April 23, 2011, at the club’s 755th anniversary banquet or the railfanning I did with him that weekend around Northeast Ohio.

No, what I will remember most was how he “covered” his struggle with pancreatic cancer and exhorted the hundreds who followed him on Facebook to get busy living.

That became a signature line of his although it wasn’t original with him. It came from the movie The Shawshank Redemption.

It also is something I think about often since I first read it in one of Wrinn’s Facebook posts. In short, I found inspiration that someone facing a life-threatening situation was trying to cheer us up.

I am not surprised Wrinn saw his medical condition as another story to be covered. He was a reporter doing what reporters do in the manner that they do it.

His accounts of chemotherapy sessions and other medical procedures were detailed and straight forward.

He mixed in some folksy whit in those reports as when he wrote, “As I said a year ago when we started this journey, I’m like an old hound on the porch back in NC, licking my wounds, but ready to get back out there. So, cross your fingers and toes that it’s something easily solved. Meanwhile, all of y’all have a great day.”

That post dated March 14 was one of his last and addressed how he was feeling a lack of energy.

He vowed to beat cancer but knew it would be a tough fight. Many he met through a cancer support group didn’t live as long after receiving their diagnosis as he did.

Yet his determination made me believe for a time that maybe, just maybe, he would win the fight.

I can’t say that Jim and I were friends although we knew each other, largely by my having written a few articles for Trains.

We were introduced in June 1999 by a mutual friend at the rail festival in Sacramento, California.

We were not railfanning buddies and our interactions were infrequent. Yet he would “like” my posts on Facebook as though we were longtime friends. I have long admired the career he was able to have in journalism.

The last time I remember seeing him was on a late April Sunday afternoon when we dropped him off at the Akron-Canton Airport after a day of railfanning in the Cleveland area with Peter Bowler and Marty Surdyk more than a decade ago.

It might also be the last time I ever spoke with him.

That weekend was a memorable one. I picked him up at CAK on a late Friday afternoon and we had dinner at Bahama Breeze in Beachwood. He had arranged to meet an old friend there after we finished eating.

The next day we had arranged for Jim to have a cab ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. After lunch in the restaurant at the former Erie passenger station in Kent, we visited the Shelly Materials facility in Kent where Jim got to run its SD18M named “Flash.”

That night he addressed the ARRC banquet. On Sunday morning I picked Jim up at his hotel and we began our day of railfanning by riding the Greater Cleveland RTA Green Line to Tower City.

From there Marty showed Jim around Cleveland a bit before we spent the balance of our time in Berea and Olmsted Falls.

The weather that day wasn’t great but Jim still posted on the Trains website a photo he made that day of some former Conrail units leading a train still wearing their CR blue livery.

It was Easter Sunday and he played off that by writing about the Easter bunny bringing him some blue eggs.

A Wrinn tribute written by Kevin P. Keefe, himself a former Trains editor, featured a self-assesment Wrinn wrote in 2009. “I could not write like [David P.] Morgan. I could not be a diesel locomotive expert like Dave Ingles, I could not write as eloquently as Kevin P. Keefe, I could not be an industry insider like Mark Hemphill. But I could bring great enthusiasm to the job, a great love for the subject, and the passion and curiosity of a journalist. The other guys put together fantastic issues of Trains, but nobody ever had a better time in this job than me.”

I can’t and won’t speak to his comparisons of himself and his predecessors, but I can say I thought one of Wrinn’s greatest achievements after taking over Trains was returning the magazine more to its roots of being a railfan publication while continuing to cover the railroad industry as the business it is.

In doing this, Trains under Wrinn took a more middle of the road approach than had his predecessor, which as a reader I felt more comfortable with.

I would look forward to his accounts of his travels to see steam locomotives I’ve never seen in action. Reading Jim’s accounts and seeing his photographs was like being there.

Wrinn’s life ended in much the same place as did Morgan’s, dying of cancer at a far too young age and leaving behind a message for those who would survive him.

Both men in their final writings urged their readers to not become complacent.

Whereas Wrinn told his friends to get busy living, Morgan in his last article written for Trains noted that railroading is always changing and enthusiasts should “look away, look away” become someday what exists now may be gone.

Now Wrinn is gone, too, but what memories we will have of the hours of enjoyment reading his articles and viewing his photographs and even sharing some time with him even if it was minuscule.

Commentary by Craig Sanders

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