Train ex­pert was Smith­so­nian’s trans­porta­tion cu­ra­tor

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­

Wil­liam L. Withuhn, a li­censed lo­co­mo­tive engi­neer who, dur­ing his 27 years as trans­porta­tion cu­ra­tor at the Smith­so­nian Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory could have been called Amer­ica’s of­fi­cial train col­lec­tor, died June 29 at his home in Bur­son, Calif. He was 75.

The cause was heart dis­ease, said his wife, Gail Withuhn.

Mr. Withuhn was an ex­pert on all modes of trans­porta­tion — planes, trains and au­to­mo­biles — and helped the Amer­i­can His­tory Mu­seum ac­quire many ma­jor items, in­clud­ing Richard Petty’s No. 43 Pon­tiac stock car, which he drove for his 200th and fi­nal NASCAR vic­tory.

Mr. Withuhn was also a sports-car en­thu­si­ast who had flown more than 200 com­bat mis­sions as a nav­i­ga­tor in the Viet­nam War, but his great­est fas­ci­na­tion was with trains. He grew up in the rail­road town of Modesto, Calif., and while still in his 20s re­ceived his engi­neer’s cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

He later op­er­ated short-line rail­roads in Vir­ginia, Mary­land, Delaware and New York and be­came a rail­road his­to­rian, preser­va­tion­ist and ad­vo­cate in Congress be­fore turn­ing his love of trans­porta­tion into a ca­reer at the Smith­so­nian.

In 1981, Mr. Withuhn helped pre­pare the Smith­so­nian’s 1831 John Bull lo­co­mo­tive, the old­est self-pro­pelled ve­hi­cle in North Amer­ica, for a short run in Ge­orge­town.

“Amer­i­cans ride the trains in their hearts,” he wrote in a 2002 es­say for News­day. “Trains built Amer­ica, phys­i­cally in­ter­lac­ing a huge ge­og­ra­phy and splin­tered po­lit­i­cal re­gions into a na­tional union . . . . We be­came the most mo­bile na­tion in the late 19th cen­tury, with trains.”

Af­ter be­com­ing the his­tory mu­seum’s trans­porta­tion cu­ra­tor in 1983, Mr. Withuhn sought to show how the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment, and even its spirit of rest­less ad­ven­ture, was in­ter­twined with var­i­ous modes of trans­port.

He over­saw more than 20 ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions and was in­stru­men­tal in de­vel­op­ing a 26,000-square-foot per­ma­nent trans­porta­tion ex­hibit, “Amer­ica on the Move,” which opened in 2003. It was the largest sin­gle ex­hibit un­der­taken by any Smith­so­nian mu­seum, up to that time.

In ad­di­tion to lo­co­mo­tives, com­plete with the sounds of their whis­tles, the ex­hibit in­cluded a patch of pave­ment from Route 66, the westward-lead­ing high­way, street­cars, a school bus, a 1940s hot rod, mo­tor­cy­cles and cars of var­i­ous vin­tages.

Mr. Withuhn helped co­or­di­nate the in­stal­la­tion of all th­ese ve­hi­cles, of­ten re­quir­ing elab­o­rate hy­draulic lifts, winches and vast amounts of pa­tience.

“I call them iron sculp­tures in an in­dus­trial gar­den,” he said in 2000.

In ad­di­tion to his cu­ra­to­rial du­ties, he also raised more than $30 mil­lion for “Amer­ica on the Move” and other Smith­so­nian en­deav­ors.

Wil­liam Lawrence Withuhn was born Aug. 12, 1941, in Port­land, Ore., and grew up mostly in Modesto. His fa­ther was an ac­coun­tant.

At the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, he was cadet com­man­der of the ROTC unit. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1963, he joined the Air Force but learned that, at 6-foot-4, he was too tall to be­come a pi­lot.

There were no height re­stric­tions for nav­i­ga­tors, how­ever, and Mr. Withuhn ex­pected to be­come a nav­i­ga­tor on trans­port planes. Dur­ing the Viet­nam War, he was as­signed to a gun­ship and par­tic­i­pated in more than 200 mis­sions, most of them at night. He re­ceived two Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Crosses and the Bronze Star. He left the Air Force in 1972 as a cap­tain and later served in the Air Force Re­serve.

In the mid-1970s, he was on the staff of U.S. Rep. James F. Hast­ings (R-N.Y.) and worked on the Re­gional Rail Re­or­ga­ni­za­tion Act. Mr. Withuhn also at­tended grad­u­ate school at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity in the 1970s, re­ceiv­ing two mas­ter’s de­grees, one in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion and an­other in his­tory.

He was act­ing di­rec­tor of the Rail­road Mu­seum of Penn­syl­va­nia in the early 1980s be­fore join­ing the Smith­so­nian.

Mr. Withuhn was the ed­i­tor of “Rails Across Amer­ica,” a 1993 his­tory of rail­roads, and the au­thor of an­other book on trains, “Spirit of Steam” (1995). He com­pleted a man­u­script on the his­tory of 20th-cen­tury steam lo­co­mo­tives be­fore his death.

Af­ter re­tir­ing in 2010, Mr. Withuhn worked with the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture to re­store and in­stall a Jim Crow-era seg­re­gated rail­road car from the 1940s.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife of 52 years, Gail Hart­man Withuhn of Bur­son; two sons, Thomas Withuhn of Elder­s­burg, Md., and Harold Withuhn of San Fran­cisco; a brother; and a grand­son. An­other son, James Withuhn, died in 1994.

On week­ends, Mr. Withuhn trav­eled across the coun­try to speak at gath­er­ings of rail­road­ers and to take part in train demon­stra­tions, of­ten in the engi­neer’s cab.

“What makes in­dus­trial his­tory im­por­tant to­day,” he told the Modesto Bee in 2000, “is that we need to be re­minded that the peo­ple who built this coun­try phys­i­cally were blue-col­lar work­ers . . . . Th­ese were peo­ple who never fin­ished grade school, some of them, and they had many of the same skills and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as the cap­tain of a 747 jet . . . . There was civ­i­liza­tion be­fore the com­puter: we need to ap­pre­ci­ate that.”


At the Smith­so­nian, Wil­liam L. Withuhn sought to show how U.S. de­vel­op­ment was in­ter­twined with var­i­ous modes of trans­port.

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