“That was the last day I took pride in my job,” Russ Herefeldt says, setting down his coffee. “After that it was just punching a clock.”
A bold disclosure to make to the guy who runs the railroad, but the burly man with the salt-and-pepper beard sits across from me and folds his arms, unapologetic.
I’ll miss that.
He’s retiring after 43 years, and our little breakfast together is a standard parting gift.
(“Gift heck,” he snorts. “I earned it.”)
Russ started with The Five Lakes Railway in 1970, 23 years old and unsure what to do with his bachelor’s of fine arts. He started washing rolling stock, learned to weld and torch, and worked his way up to retire as foreman of the Milwaukee car shop.
The day he lost pride in his job was in 2001.
See, Russ is an artist by calling and a repairer of railcars by necessity. He’s produced a respectable body of work in oils and plans to split retirement between family and canvas.
Not that he didn’t love his job. Russ is the kind of guy who sees the art in a job well done, and can look at something as utilitarian as a boxcar and appreciate it as a thing of beauty.
So it was a big deal for him when, in 2000, management asked him to sit on a committee designing the look of the 80200 series boxcars.
It merged his work with his passion, and should have defined his career.
He worked with the advertising department, produced sketches and life-sized mockups, and even rode the company jet to a meeting with a consultant in Los Angeles. He felt valued and excited to be part of something visible and important for the company.
The pinnacle, he says, was the day the committee presented their recommendation to the board. He wore his only suit and sat in the large, cherry-paneled boardroom.
“We brought beautiful mockups of our design,” he recalls as we leave the restaurant and amble across the yard toward the shop. “It was simple and I think elegant, and after all the meeting and consulting and revisions, looked a lot like my initial vision. It was very satisfying.”
The design – his design – started with a color he mixed up called “Inland Sea.” To the left of the door was the railroad name and tagline, and to the right a blue silhouette of the Great Lakes. A patch of Four Corners blue on the end was a nod to the cooperative arrangement the two roads shared at the time.
Russ even did two paintings to show the board: a portrait of a single unit, and a landscape showing a railyard with rows and rows of Inland Sea equipment.
He says he almost teared up when they approved the project. It meant his color and his design would become the face of the railroad, seen nationwide.
It was a heady day for a kid who started out washing freight cars.
Now Russ stands by one of his boxcars and shakes his woolly head.
“Four,” he says, holding up calloused fingers. “We managed to get four of them through the shop before they pulled the plug.”
In the shaky times after 9/11, the Four Corners and the Five Lakes decided to solidify their cooperative relationship. Russ admits the merger was the right thing – people kept good jobs, the health insurance was cheaper – but his vision of rows and rows of Inland Sea freight cars was not to be.
“After only the fourth car, they told me to just make them legal,” he laments. “Get reporting marks and data on them and move them out. We had a couple dozen cars in primer, waiting for paint and lettering.”
Coupled to the gorgeous Inland Sea car is another from the 80200 series, it’s drab, mud-colored primer decorated only by those reporting marks and data.
But right of the door, dingy from a decade in the sun, is a silhouette of the Great Lakes.
“In forty-three years, that was my one act of insubordination,” Russ smirks. “We used up the vinyl graphics we had in the shop. My last thumb in the eye of change.”
There are a half-dozen boxcars still out there with Russ’ unauthorized artwork on them. He hates seeing them – says they remind him of his powerlessness, of being just another cog in the machine.
Russ always wanted to be recognized as an artist, and that recognition may not be far off. He has some leads on galleries willing to show his paintings. There’s talk of some commission work.
But he won’t let himself get excited.
“I’ve heard things like that before,” he says.