Return to Gerald M. Best Senior Achievement Awards
The Railway & Locomotive Historical Society’s Gerald M. Best Senior Achievement Award is presented annually to a person whose lifelong contributions to the interpretation, preservation, and promotion of railroad history merit special distinction. This year’s awardee is Keith L. Bryant, Jr., for his achievements in teaching, research, publication, and service to the R&LHS, as well as his continuing commitment to the goals of the railroad history community.
Most railroad readers associate Bryant with his well-known, well-regarded corporate history: History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (1974, from Macmillan’s Railroads of America series), a book that can be found on the shelves of more than 440 libraries and in the homes of countless railfans across the world. Of all his books, it is the one of which he is most proud. This year, a new edition – revised with Fred Frailey – is being issued by the University of Nebraska Press. Other readers, certainly the research-oriented among them, appreciate him as the editor of Railroads in the Age of Regulation, 1900-1980 (Encyclopedia of American Business History & Biography series, Facts on File, 1989) a reference work John Larson in Business History Review praised for its “balanced coverage, lively presentation, significant interpretation, and clean prose.”
Enviable as they are, Bryant’s railroad research, writing, and editorial abilities form only part of his skill set. His expertise extends to art and architecture, biography, and business history generally, as well as the American Southwest and its history, landscape, and culture. Those interests often intertwine with his railroad work, informing it with an interdisciplinary focus that is unusual in our field.
Bryant was born in 1937 in Oklahoma City, and railroads interested him from an early age. The attraction grew from family life: his father enjoyed rail photography. Bryant earned two degrees from the University of Oklahoma: a B.S. in 1959 and a master’s in education two years later. His Ph.D. in history came from the University of Missouri, in 1965; the subject of his dissertation was the colorful governor of the Sooner State, “Alfalfa Bill” Murray.
On graduating, he accepted his first teaching position at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He won that university’s Kiekhofer Memorial Award for excellence in teaching in 1968. In 1976, he moved to the Texas A&M University at College Station as head of the History Department, serving as dean of the College of Liberal Arts from 1980 to 1984. He then taught at the University of Akron in Ohio until 2001, when he retired and was designated emeritus. His home is in Bryan, Texas.
Besides working as a historical consultant for the Southern Railway, Bryant served on the board of directors of the Lexington Group in Transportation History and on the R&LHS board, 2004-2012, as well as on Railroad History’s Board of Advisory Editors, 1980-2010.
Bryant is the winner of two previous R&LHS Awards: the George & Constance Hilton Book Award in 1990 for Railroads in the Age of Regulation (above-mentioned), and the David P. Morgan Article Award in 1998 for “Railroad Redundant: the Fort Smith & Western Railway” (Railroad History No. 174). He has published more than 30 books and articles, a body of work that is remarkable for its variety. One of his earliest books, a biography of railroad entrepreneur, city builder, and fantasist Arthur Stillwell: Promoter with a Hunch (Vanderbilt University Press, 1971) was described by Richard C. Overton, a dean of railroad historians, as “a first-rate piece of work” and “an important and engaging book.” Stillwell left few documents behind, so Bryant faced a near Sisyphean task in culling together the resources for this biography. It established Bryant as a researcher’s researcher.
Fellow railroad historian H. Roger Grant describes Bryant as “a star railroad academic. He never gets bogged down with academic jargon. He possesses a readable prose style … designed for both academics and intelligent readers of railroad history.” Bryant himself says he feels “a deep obligation to tell the railroad story” in a way that is accessible to all. He is especially grateful to railroad leaders, who, he says, “were ever-generous in allowing access to railroad records.”
Readers can be grateful that Bryant’s “retirement” has quotes around it, as his recent chapter on “Southern Transcontinentals” in After Promontory: One Hundred & Fifty Years of Transcontinental Railroading (Center for Railroad Photography & Art, 2019) confirms.
The R&LHS Board of Directors and Awards Committee are proud to recognize one of the railroad history community’s most accomplished railroad historians.
—Gregory P. Ames