Until about a year ago, former Union Pacific Railroad CEO John C. Kenefick was still turning up at the company's downtown Omaha headquarters six days a week, dressed in a suit and tie.
He had officially retired in 1986, but Kenefick — an Ivy League-educated train engineer who served as the railroad's top executive for 15 years — could never quite let it go. Roaming the halls of the building, he would stop to talk with employees, pick up lunch in the cafeteria. And sometimes the man who led U.P. through deregulation and its first large merger was called in to provide perspective on major decisions.
Even when his health began to decline and he was confined to his home, he wanted to be in the loop. A friend and former co-worker who visited him regularly in recent weeks and months said Kenefick would never let him leave until he got the answer to one question: "How is the railroad running?"
Kenefick died Friday at his home in Omaha after several months of deteriorating health. He was 89.
"With great foresight he strengthened our railroad and guided it through some of the most challenging times in our history," said U.P. Chairman Jim Young. "It is with great pride that we celebrate his memory and innumerable contributions to our company and community."
A New York native, Kenefick came to Omaha in 1947 after getting a mechanical engineering degree at Princeton University and serving in the Navy for three years during World War II.
He was hired by Union Pacific to be a draftsman, but left that position after a short time to work as a brakeman — a position he figured would give him a better sense of how the railroad worked. Kenefick was promoted to assistant trainmaster and then left U.P. in 1952 to work with the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, and later the New York Central.
When the New York Central merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad in February 1968, Kenefick was named vice president of transportation.
Three months later he returned to Union Pacific as its vice president of operations. By 1969 he was the railroad's executive vice president.
John Rebensdorf, now U.P.'s vice president of network planning and operations, met Kenefick that year. He said he took note right away of Kenefick's commitment to the industry — and his particular ability to see what it needed to grow and change.
"He liked the railroad, he liked trains, but he was a businessman first and foremost," Rebensdorf said. "So it wasn't like a lot of people, where they like trains but they can't overcome the fact that a railroad's got to be run like any other company and make money and satisfy the shareholders. I think that's one of the things that made him different."
In 1971 Kenefick was named U.P.'s president, a position he held until 1983, when U.P. merged with the Missouri Pacific and Pacific Railroads and he became the company's chairman and CEO.
During his time at the head of the company, U.P.'s annual revenues increased from $1 billion to $8 billion and earnings grew from $75 million to $500 million. He oversaw the railroad's first major merger — a move that made the railroad the country's third-largest. Today it is the largest railroad in North America.
In a 2004 interview, Kenefick said he also was proud of his involvement in the 1984 construction of a connector line with the Chicago & Northwestern out of Wyoming's Powder River Basin, one of the nation's richest coal fields.
For the next two and a half decades, Kenefick kept up his workday routine, if in a slightly more low-key style.
"He was very careful to not impose his opinion on what was going on unless you asked persistently," said Bob Turner, U.P.'s senior vice president of corporate relations. "If you pushed him a little, he gave his opinion."
In his retirement, some of the time Kenefick spent in the office was dedicated to the long list of community groups with which he was involved.
He served as a Princeton University trustee and played a major role in several Omaha-area organizations. Kenefick served on boards at Creighton University, the Strategic Air Command Memorial Society, FirsTier Inc. and Valmont Industries. He also was a director of Clarkson Hospital, an honorary trustee of Joslyn Art Museum and 1975 president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Kenefick's stepson, John Ryan, said his stepfather was particularly dedicated to his work with the Christian Urban Education Service (CUES), a nonprofit group that supports Sacred Heart School in north Omaha.
The Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor at Sacred Heart, said Kenefick led the effort to create CUES when the school was in danger of closing in the early 1970s. Over the years he continued to play a key role, often coming to read to children.
"He definitely made his mark and left a huge impression in lots of hearts," Fangman said.
In 1986 Kenefick received the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith's American Heritage Award. At the ceremony, then-Gov. Kay Orr said his leadership "places him among the giants of American railroading." Then-U.S. Rep. Hal Daub said he "exemplifies the highest ideals of our great nation."
Away from the boardroom and the spotlight of community events, Kenefick was a private man who enjoyed spending time with his family.
He is survived by his wife, Hani; children, Mary Kenefick Connor, Elizabeth Ryan, Mary Ryan Ferer and Nancy Ryan, all of Omaha, and John Ryan, of Portland, Maine; eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
For 40 years the family vacationed on Cliff Island, Maine, where the Keneficks were married. A memorial service is planned there.
Kenefick had one daughter, Mary, when he married Hani, a widowed mother of four.
John Ryan said Kenefick made an easy transition into the blended family — in large part because he was the kind of person who could make just about anyone feel comfortable.
"He was very comfortable in that world as a Princeton trustee, rubbing shoulders with Harrimans on the railroad, but he also had a remarkable ability to connect with the average guy," Ryan said.
"I can remember riding on the railroad with him in his business car, and he'd get out when we stopped and chat up the guys on the track gang, the engineers, the guys in the shop," Ryan said. "And he knew what he was talking about because he came up from that part of the world."
Ryan said his stepfather hated when people made a fuss over him and his accomplishments.
In 2004, when two U.P. locomotives were placed on display at Omaha's Lauritzen Gardens, Kenefick was thrilled. When he learned the parcel of land would be called Kenefick Park, "it just about killed him," Ryan joked.
Still, Ryan said, he could tell Kenefick was proud.
"He'd say, 'It's good for the railroad, the railroad is good for Omaha, so I'll put up with it.' "
A wake will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Omaha and the funeral is at 10 a.m. Wednesday, also at the church. Memorials may be made to the CUES program at Sacred Heart School and to Lauritzen Gardens.
Contact the writer: