“Uncle Dan” Willard was born on a farm near North Hartland, Vt. during the first year of the Civil War. The first locomotive he saw ran by the farm on the old Central Vermont. Aged 16, he taught school for a spell. Aged 17, hi was sent to Massachusetts Agricultural College. Bad eyesight compelled him to give up his studies, get a job in a track gang. Three years later he was an engineer on the Connecticut & Passumpsic River, now a part of the Boston & Maine. Then he went West.
When next seen he was “hogging” (driving a locomotive), on the Lake Shore & Michigan with a pair of red mittens on his hands and a book or two under the cab seat. There is good reason for “Uncle Dan” to sympathize with the 500,000 men laid off railroads in the last two years. The business depression of 1883 took him out of his cab, put him to work as a conductor on the Soo. From conductor he started up the long grind of a railroad operating man’s career: trainmaster, assistant superintendent, superintendent.
When a railroad official gets a chance for a better position on another line, not infrequently he takes a subordinate or so along with him. When Frederick Douglass Underwood left the Soo to become general manager of the B & O. he took Superintendent Willard along as his assistant. That was in 1899. Two years later Mr. Underwood became president of the Erie, asked Mr. Willard to accompany him. “Uncle Dan” went along as general manager In 1910 he returned East to become president of the road he had left nine years before.
In 1910 the B.& O. was a great, rusty T-shaped giant. The top of the T ran from Philadelphia to Washington. The stem split, one line reaching out in Chicago, the other ending just over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Corporate headquarters were at the top of the stem in Baltimore.
When he took charge, one of the first things President Willard did was cancel all advertising. “We’ll start again when we have something to advertise,” he said. Having spent nearly half a billion on his railroad in the past 20 years, “Uncle Dan” now has something to advertise. He has authorized copy written this way: “70,000 of us invite you to travel on the B. & 0.”
A tangible improvement of the Willard administration was the acquisition of than any other man for the Eastern four-system unification plan. (sic) Under him Chicago & Alton was taken over as a western B. & O. link. Last week B. & O. began operating the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh as a division of its system.
The atmosphere of “we’re-all-B. & O.-men-together” is one President Willard likes to get into his bulletins. Sample: “No matter how hard we try, we cannot make the B..& O. the greatest, straightest or richest railroad, but we can, if we try hard enough, create for it the reputation of being the best railroad in the world from the point of service.” A prime Willard maxim: “Be a good neighbor.” Farmer boys and girls up and down his line get settings of eggs. Officials are sent to make friends with local shippers. And in 1927 “Uncle Dan” put on a 23-day pageant (”The Fair of the Iron Horse”) outside Baltimore to show what his road had accomplished in its century of existence.
It is generally agreed throughout the system that no one works harder on the B. & O. than President Willard. He gets up early, works late. Once he told Jim, porter of his office car, No. 99, to wake him at 5 a.m. As the dawn was breaking, the blackamoor felt a tug at his covers, looked up into “Uncle Dan’s” smiling face. “Wake up, Jim,” said President Willard. “It’s 5 o’clock.”
There is a good deal of confusion as to who has ridden on No. 99. The fact is that no one except President Willard and his officers ride on it. If they are important enough, celebrities traveling over the B. & O. are given the Maryland.
Just as no one rides on No. 99, few get inside “Uncle Dan’s” white stucco house, which hides behind trees in Baltimore’s smart Roland Park. There he lives with his wife and his two orphaned grandchildren, whose parents died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. He plays his violin occasionally, is a wretched golfer. Like many a railroad man, he goes to the office on Sundays. Like many railroad children, his grandsons like to go along, too. He owns the farm where he was born, farms it. He belongs to the Unitarian Church, drinks a little, smokes a little.
When he was on the Wartime Council of National Defense he saw a good deal of Walter Sherman Gifford. After the War, Mr. Gifford saw that Mr. Willard was made a director of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. Mr. Willard saw that Mr. Gifford was made a fellow trustee of Johns Hopkins University.
The typical railroad president is not always the typical railroad man. Often they come by their positions through the legal department. This month “Uncle Dan” completes the 71st year of his life, the 22nd of his presidency. This week he will be a principal figure in discussions involving the welfare of more than half the trackage on earth. He has health, the respect of his associates, a comfortable share of the world’s goods. More important to 1,250,000 rail employees who are also involved, is the fact that he is not just a railroad president. He is a railroad man.