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John C. Kenefick
John Cooper Kenefick was born on December 26, 1921, in Buffalo, New York. Kenefick was the son of a self-educated attorney, but like many young boys, he daydreamed about railroading. Fulfilling his father’s wishes, Kenefick graduated from Princeton University in 1943 with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering. He maintained a strong allegiance to his alma mater, serving it later in life as trustee, clerk of the board, and executive committee chairman. Although he settled in Omaha, his Nebraska license plate, "P 1943," illustrated the enduring connection he felt to the east coast Ivy League school.
Following graduation, Kenefick spent three years in the Navy during World War II, primarily in the Pacific. After being discharged, he started his career at the New York Central Railroad as an apprentice in the mechanical department. Restless, he held the post a short six months before heading to Omaha in 1947 to join Union Pacific as a locomotive draftsman.
Kenefick left Union Pacific five years later in 1952 and worked in various positions at the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad and again at the New York Central. He made a concerted effort to gain experience in a variety of departments in order to learn firsthand how a railroad operates.
In 1968, Kenefick rejoined the Union Pacific as vice president of operations. The knowledge he had gained propelled him rapidly through the ranks. He was promoted to UP executive vice president in 1969 and was named chief executive of the transportation division in 1970. In 1971, he was promoted to president.
Over the next 12 years, the Union Pacific expanded and prospered under Kenefick’s leadership. In 1983, as the railroad was preparing to merge with the Missouri Pacific and the Western Pacific, Kenefick was named chairman and chief executive of both the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific Railroads.
The merger more than doubled the Union Pacific’s size and made it the nation’s third-largest railroad with 21,000 track miles across the West and Midwest. In terms of revenue, the railroad was the nation’s largest. During Kenefick’s tenure, revenue continued to grow, surging from $1 billion to $8 billion.
Kenefick’s steady hand guided the UP through the turbulent decade of the 1970s when federally mandated pricing made it difficult for railroads to compete with an expanding trucking industry. Despite this challenge, Kenefick initiated a forwarding-looking, aggressive program of infrastructure investments to keep pace with future operating needs. A hands-on executive, he traveled the railroad in its entirety twice a year to personally oversee projects, inspect track, and express appreciation to employees in the field.
In 1980, a period of railroad deregulation began when President Jimmy Carter signed the Staggers Rail Act. Once again, Kenefick shepherded the UP through the new and challenging era that came with freedom to set rates and enhanced competitive position with trucking companies.
In 1984, Kenefick oversaw the construction of a connector line with the Chicago and North Western Railway. Known as “Project Yellow,” the line was a key strategic move that gave Union Pacific access to one of the nation’s largest coal deposits in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Kenefick’s strategic guidance also paved the way for the company’s eventual merger with the Chicago and North Western, as well as the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. The acquisitions shortened Union Pacific's route from Kansas City to Fort Worth and on to the Gulf.
In April 1986, Kenefick took on the role of vice chairman and chief executive of Union Pacific Corporation, the holding company. He retired in December of that year after 40 years of service, but remained involved with the company for the next two decades.
Kenefick has been described as the linchpin for the post-1969 period in Union Pacific's history, but his influence also extended beyond UP to the industry overall. He served six years on the board of the Association of American Railroads board, beginning his term in 1980, the same year the Staggers Act passed, partially deregulating the nation's railroads.
John C. Kenefick died on July 15, 2011, at his home in Omaha. He was 89. His legacy lives on through at the Union Pacific via the tracks and tunnels he commissioned, and through a business car and employee safety award named in his honor. He is also recognized in the community through a park named in his honor within Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha’s botanical gardens. It displays two Union Pacific locomotives.
An industry giant, he guided the railroad with even temperament through an era of stifling regulation, industry consolidation, and the threat of nationalization into a new age of health and competitive strength.
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