Monday, January 30, 2017

In Memoriam - Robert E. Bruneau, 1933-2017

"Let me tell you a story." I can't remember how many times I heard that from Bob Bruneau during the years I was volunteering in the Car Department while he was the department head. Bob was one of my best friends at IRM and was something of a mentor, not only to me but to many others.  And along with being a department head, historian, machinist, and general repository of knowledge, he was a story teller. Frequently he would hold an entire room of people in rapt attention talking about riding his beloved Illinois Terminal through central Illinois back in the 1950s - or have his audience practically on the floor laughing telling stories about a long-gone model railroad club or hijinks during the early days at IRM. He was a compelling mix of gregarious yet shrewd; full of information and experience yet self-effacing and unpretentious. He was an irreplaceable trove of stories, information, and memories, and had the ability to make a friend out of a stranger within moments of meeting him. Not only is IRM the poorer for his passing, but so too are all of us who knew him.

Bob was born in 1933 and by his early 20s had become a fan of the IT, a passion that would be lifelong. He would take the Rock Island to Peoria on a Friday night and ride the interurban from there down to St. Louis, spending the weekend riding and observing the last of the truly typical Midwest interurban lines. When mainline interurban passenger service quit in 1956, he borrowed money from his parents and purchased two IT cars, combine 277 and suburban center-entrance car 101. He donated them to IRM (then the Illinois Electric Railway Museum in North Chicago), becoming a regular member in March 1956. Drafted into the army and serving in Korea, Bob missed the end of IT passenger service in 1958 - which he always regretted - but upon his return he quickly became a vital member of the museum's volunteer corps. In 1964, when frantic work to move the entire museum from North Chicago to Union was underway, Bob quit his job as a machinist ("one of my many retirements," he'd say) and essentially lived at the museum for a time. He was in charge of the North Chicago end of the moving operation and would travel home to Chicago once a week to do laundry and pick up food and supplies. He was in charge of a myriad of tasks including prepping cars for movement, making sure needed parts made it to Union, selling spare components for scrap to raise badly-needed cash (he would recall sadly sending brand new GE traction motors from ComEd, still in packing crates, off to scrap), and cleaning up the property.

At Union, for a time Bob was the museum's General Manager and over the years he participated in a number of restoration projects, many - but not all - on Illinois Terminal cars. He always had ambitions to rebuild the 234, perhaps his favorite of the mainline IT car fleet, and return it to an earlier appearance with railroad roof and arched windows. He also rebuilt one end of line car 1702 and did maintenance and repair work on the 101, 415, 277, 1565, and other cars at one time or another. Around 1989, in the middle of acquiring a raft of cars from East Troy, he became head of the Car Department, a post he held for nearly 20 years. The car department has always been a large department in terms of number of volunteers and has long been relatively laissez-faire in its direction; Bob led in that spirit. He was always available to help out a project with advice, experience, or the procuring of spare parts from mysterious hiding places. And he set the standard for quality of work; he painted wooden window frames so perfectly they had the appearance of an automotive finish.

I got to know Bob when I started spending more time volunteering at IRM in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At that time Bob would take the train out to Crystal Lake on Saturday night (to my knowledge he never had a driver's license nor owned a car) and someone would give him a lift to the property. He'd then stay out in Union until Wednesday at dinnertime, when he would either take the train back to his house in Chicago or be given a ride. For years, Saturdays in the Car Department were the non-smoking days, when some of the younger guys and "L" car fans would come out and volunteer, while Sundays were for the "Bruneau crowd" - mostly cigar smokers. Bob himself always smoked Muriel Air Tip cigars and for years the sight of those little plastic cigar tips here and there in the ballast was ubiquitious. Late into the night, Bob would hold court in the smoke-filled car shop for story-telling sessions and discussions that would generally last until one or two in the morning. And he doted on Mr. Socks, the shop cat, who slept in Bob's office in a file drawer - filed under "C" for "cat," of course.

Bob had great stories. He'd talk about riding the IT late at night, in the middle of nowhere between substations where the voltage drop was so bad that wrapping up the controller would practically extinguish the headlight, and the motorman would keep the handle on the post until just before hitting each grade crossing where he'd shut off and suddenly the whole track would be lit up. Or about watching the NYC and PRR race outbound through Englewood, with the Pennsy's turbine locomotive sailing past, throwing chunks of molten slag out the stack at a prodigious rate (Bob said the fans called that thing the "volcano"). Or about hanging off the side of an antique firetruck during a high-speed joyride through Union back in the mid-1960s when IRM was briefly home to a small firetruck museum. Or about working in Ohio to rebuild and re-wheel an open car for Gerald Brookins - the open car now at IRM, the 19. It seemed like he remembered it all, everything that had ever happened to him or at IRM.

One of his latter-day stories that sticks in my mind was about a time in the 1990s when someone took the 415 out for a mainline trip after dark. There wasn't much interest in riding the car and it was just Bob and a few other guys riding along. Somewhere along the trip the skies opened up and it started to pour. The wind was blowing strongly from the south so they closed the windows on that side of the car. The north-facing windows stayed open. And they rode along through the dark, nobody talking, enjoying the sound of the the wheels and the motors and the pouring rain. Back in the 1950s, out in the middle of nowhere in central Illinois, rocketing through the darkness.

Memorial wake:
Thursday, February 2nd
Nelson Funeral Home
820 W Talcott Road
Park Ridge, IL 60068


Joel Ahrendt said...

I started at the museum in 93 or early 94 in another department that used the Car Shops stuff from time to time. One day, Bob mentioned that since I come out often and do work, he has a heated shop, I should work for him. So I did. From that point on until the present (minus the 8 years up in Minnesota), I was a Car shop Worker. Learning how to do inspections, and just hanging out on Tuesday night the last hour I was out at the museum hearing his stories or his one liners. He had a lot of knowledge. He will be missed.

Nicholaus Gawriluk said...

Unfortunately I never got to meet Mr. Bruneau but I've been hearing stories about him for years. He always seemed more of a legend than a real person. Thanks for sharing this.

Randall Hicks said...

From the IRM list, it appears that Malcolm McCarter died last month at his home in Arizona. He was the last surviving member of the ten founders who put up the money to buy the 65 and start IERM back in 1953. Perhaps if we can get more information from people who knew him better (I only met him briefly once or twice) we should post a memorial about him also.

Anonymous said...

As a major fan of Rail & Wire; I saw his name hundreds of times. He was skilled in many of the areas of interest to the museum's electric car fleet.

One more of the people who had first hand experience of the Interurban era; has left us.

Ted Miles, IRM Member

Joel Ahrendt said...

I sat with Malcolm and his daughter at the 60th dinner. It was a good time to talk with one of the people who actually started the Museum. They both will be missed.

Anonymous said...

I hope posts and stories about Bruneau continue to show up on this blog. He was such a great guy and, for me, working in the shop during his era was among the most memorable part of being at IRM in general.