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By Pat Foran, Editor
He was “Brokenrail” to all who knew him and those who simply knew of him. He sometimes spoke in parables, and his passion as an advocate — for rail labor, for rail, for people — spoke volumes about what he valued most in this life: the people he shared it with. Last month, his many friends reflected on how fortunate they’d been to be on the receiving end of that sharing.
On Dec. 19, James Brunkenhoefer, longtime national legislative director for the United Transportation Union, died after suffering a stroke two days earlier. He was 61.
“On the professional side, he was UTU first — you knew that, everybody knew that,” says Union Pacific Railroad Vice President of External Relations Michael Rock, a friend for 20 years. “But to me, his life was much more than that.”
Just as it was for countless others who call the transportation industry home. The Texas-born Brunkenhoefer began his railroad career in 1966 as a trainman for the Southern Pacific Transportation Co. on the Dallas-Sabine District. He earned his nickname shortly thereafter. (“None of the old switchmen where he hired out could pronounce his name,” Rock says. )
Promoted to engineer in 1971, Brunkenhoefer held seniority in train and engine service crafts over UP lines in Texas and Louisiana. In 1969, he was elected vice chairperson of Local 83 in Houston. Brunkenhoefer also served Local 83 as local president, VP, a member of the board of trustees, chairperson, legislative representative, delegate and special organizer. In 1980, Brunkenhoefer was named alternate Texas state legislative director, and in 1982, he assumed the full directorship of the Texas State Legislative Board.
At UTU’s Fifth Quadrennial Convention in 1987, he was elected national legislative director. He was re-elected in 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007. For good reason.
“Whether explaining our issues to Democrats or Republicans, he was interested in only one result: Do they understand the issue from a UTU member’s perspective?” said UTU International President Mike Futhey in a prepared statement. “He didn’t win all lawmakers over to our point of view, but he continued cultivating those who voted against us, recognizing that tomorrow is another day, and it is better to have friends in Congress than enemies.”
Brunkenhoefer also counted many friends in the railroad realm.
“He believed in labor, like all labor union people should, but he also wanted the railroads to do well,” says longtime friend Dewey Garland, director of the Railroad and Shipyard Department for the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association. “For union people to do well, the company they worked for had to do well. He knew that.”
And rail advocates knew that he knew it. Brunkenhoefer’s rail-world view set him apart on the Hill; he played a role in the passage/defeat of most every key piece of rail industry legislation during the past two decades.
“It was his integrity, his honesty. He didn’t leave you hanging as to what he was thinking,” says Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ed Hamberger. “When he made a commitment, he stood by it. He was dedicated to his union brothers and sisters, but also to the industry, to railroading.”
Adds rail analyst/transportation consultant Tony Hatch: “He truly did look at the bigger picture. He understood that, above and beyond the intramural disputes, the pie, as he put it, needed to grow in order to argue about the size of the slice. He was a very effective advocate for the industry as a whole.”
Brunkenhoefer also had his own way of advocating. Well-versed in a range of subjects (“He knew a little about everything, and a whole lot about a few things,” Garland says), the well-traveled Brunkenhoefer was a good listener, an intuitive communicator and, when required, an idiosyncratic educator.
“He had a way of conveying things — all those colorful aphorisms,” says BNSF Railway Co.’s VP of Federal Government Affairs Amy Hawkins, a fellow Texan who in the early 1990s served as a staffer for former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. “If you were trying to learn something, he would bring it to you in a way that would help you understand. He actually did speak in parables.”
For Hawkins, the morals of Brunkenhoefer’s stories sunk in; he taught her “more about the X’s and O’s of railroading” during her early years in the industry than anyone else. But Hawkins, like everybody else contacted for this story, considered Brunkenhoefer a friend first. “He took a personal interest in my life,” she says. “He always knew what my kids were up to.”
He always knew because he always asked.
“‘How’s that boy of yours doing?’ is what I would hear, and he always asked about my wife,” says Garland. “He cared. It went way beyond the normal call of duty.”
That’s because for Brokenrail, it wasn’t about duty at all.
“The thing that really stood about him is that he was just a great person,” says UP’s Rock. “No matter what side of an issue we were on, one thing that was constant was he was still your friend. There wasn’t anything that was going to shake that.”
Likewise for his legacy.
“He was a great ambassador for every trade,” Hawkins says. “In his passing, that will even become more true because it causes all of us to stop and appreciate each other.”
‘It’s just such a big loss,” adds Hatch, who had the honor of attending minor league baseball games in “obscure parts of the country” with Brunkenhoefer, an avid fan. “He was one of the real characters in this business. I can’t tell you how much I will miss him.”
Brunkenhoefer is survived by his wife, Judy Sinkin. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions in his name to be made to: So Others May Eat, 71 O Street NW, Washington, DC 20001.