The Gerald M. Best Senior Achievement Award is given for significant and long-standing contributions to the writing, preservation, and interpretation of railroad history. The 2021 award winner is Mike Schafer, who has made substantial contributions to railroad history throughout a career in railroad publishing, journalism, and photography for more than half a century.
After graduating from Northern Illinois University with a degree in art and art education, he served as an associate editor in the books department of Kalmbach Publishing, and later worked as an editor at Andover Junction Publications and White River Productions.
Schafer served for many years as editor of Passenger Train Journal, as well as several railroad historical society journals, including The Milwaukee Railroader (Milwaukee Road Historical Association), The Diamond (Erie Lackawanna Historical Society), The Rocket (Rock Island Technical Society), and First & Fastest (Shore Line Interurban Historical Society).
As the author or co-author of more than 20 books and dozens of articles, he is also a highly accomplished photographer whose work is widely published. He first solo book was just published this year, My Milwaukee Road: One man’s adventures with the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific, 1964-1985, a gallery of his photos of that beleaguered but historic fallen-flag carrier.
Long-time Trains editor and publisher Kevin Keefe, now retired, recently shared his views about his longtime friend on his blog. Soon after their meeting in 1972, he was deeply impressed with Schafer’s multimedia slide program. He wrote: “That show, ‘Chicago Is . . . My Kind of Railroad Town,’ blew me away with its use of dual projectors and synchronized sound, something I’d never witnessed before. The show featured a number of photographers, including a healthy dose of Schafer’s own bold images, plus some music by Aaron Copland. Awesome.
“At that point I would never have expected that Schafer and I would work together off and on for the next 40-plus years, but that’s just what happened.”
They worked together at Kalmbach and at PTJ, where Keefe was managing editor and Schafer was art director. He continued: “I must declare my admiration for Mike’s long career as a writer, editor, and photographer. Especially the latter. From those very first photos of Mike’s from the early 1970s, I saw him as someone who got about as much out of a frame of slide film as anyone in the field. He remains a master of the form, both as artist and technician. When we worked together on PTJ, I tried to get his photos on the cover every chance we got.
“One of Mike’s good friends is Mel Patrick, a bonafide superstar of railroad photography, and Mel has this to say about his old friend: “On a personal level, Mike’s creative and artistic talents opened my eyes on what to capture on film. You could learn a lot just standing in his shadow.”
Schafer describes his entrance into slide photography, courtesy of an aunt, Bert Magnuson, who had shot slides during her career was a Navy nurse during the Korean war. “I was fascinated by the color slide format and took my first railroad slide on November 27, 1964, a scene at Santa Fe’s Chicago engine terminal,” he told Keefe. “I was sold on the photography thing.”
With Jim Boyd, later the founding editor of Railfan magazine, now Railfan & Railroad, Schafer co-founded the North Western Illinois Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. That chapter published the seminal book NWI’s Guide to Railroad Photography, used as a primer for countless fledgling railfan photographers.
Besides Boyd, he also spent time with other notable writer/editor/photographer types, including Trains Senior Editor J. David Ingles and author Jim Scribbins.
Schafer, who retired as editor of PTJ in 2022, played a leading role in documenting and photographing the final years of intercity rail passenger service immediately prior to the formation of Amtrak. As such, he is a primary source of first-hand knowledge of privately operated passenger service for many younger fans.