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Benjamin Heineman Sr., ‘Improbable’ Rail Innovator, Dies at 98

Benjamin Heineman Sr., ‘Improbable’ Rail Innovator, Dies at 98
Benjamin Heineman Sr., left, with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House in this undated file photo. Heineman has died. He was 98. Source: White House via Bloomberg

Benjamin W. Heineman Sr., a Chicago-based corporate lawyer and businessman who helped modernize U.S. railways and advised President Lyndon B. Johnson, has died. He was 98.

He died on Aug. 5 after suffering a stroke while visiting family in Wisconsin, the Chicago Tribune reported, citing his daughter, Martha Heineman Pieper.

A leading business and civic figure, Heineman was a trustee of the University of Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera. Avid art collectors, he and his wife, Natalie, gave their collection of contemporary studio glass, with an estimated value of $9.5 million, to the Corning Museum of Glass in New York in 2006. Natalie Heineman died in 2010.

Heineman was chief executive officer of Northwest Industries Inc., which he formed in 1968 as a holding company for Chicago & North Western Railway Co., then for his other business ventures, starting with insurance. He sold the railroad to its employees in 1972 and retired as Northwest Industries CEO in 1985, when the company was acquired by Farley Industries Inc. for $1.4 billion.

Author Tom Murray, in his 2008 history of the C&NW, said “the Ben Heineman revolution” that began in 1956 included transitioning the carrier to all-diesel locomotion, eliminating steam; developing a computer-based system for keeping track of freight cars; establishing a department to help shippers find locations for new plants and warehouses; upgrading “worn-out” commuter cars around Chicago; and cutting back on money-losing intercity passenger routes.

‘Lawyer’s Logic’

In his first involvement with railroads, Heineman was credited with modernizing the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway Co. after leading a proxy battle to take it over in 1954.

Heineman “admitted going in that he knew little of railroading, but he was a quick study, energetic, aggressive and determined,” Don L. Hofsommer wrote in “The Tootin’ Louie,” his 2004 book on the Minneapolis & St. Louis. “He also was impatient and apt to pace a room restlessly, talking rapidly, developing ideas with a lawyer’s logic and fluency, constantly challenging tradition.”

A 1965 New York Times profile called Heineman “an improbable rail executive,” an “outsider” who had “enhanced the image of the entire industry.”

Benjamin Walter Heineman was born on Feb. 10, 1914, in Wausau, Wisconsin, the son of Walter Benjamin and Elsie Brunswick Heineman, according to a death notice in the New York Times. His father, who went bankrupt in the Great Depression, committed suicide, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

Law Review

Heineman attended the University of Michigan from 1930 to 1933 and graduated from Northwestern Law School in 1936 as editor of the law review, the death notice said.

During World War II, he served as assistant general counsel in the Office of Price Administration and then as assistant director of the North African Economic board. In 1951, Governor Adlai E. Stevenson appointed him special assistant attorney general to investigate cigarette-tax fraud in Illinois.

Under President Johnson, he served as chairman of the White House Conference on Civil Rights in 1966 and in other advisory roles.

Survivors include his daughter Martha and his son, Ben W. Heineman Jr., a senior fellow at the Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance and former senior vice president for law and public affairs at General Electric Co.

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