Keith Hunt rose from a 31-cents-an-hour apprentice to vice-president and helped to take Canadian National from the steam era to diesels, with a mistaken dalliance with the jet age along the way.
Keith Hunt started his working life as an apprentice electrician in the CN rail yards in London, Ontario. He ended his working life as a vice-president of the railway and was the first man to walk down the stairs at the CN Tower, a construction project he oversaw.
He was born on a farm near Frome, Ontario and grew up in nearby London. He dropped out of Sir Adam Beck Collegiate when he was 16 and went into the apprentice program at the Canadian National Railway, training to become an electrician. His starting salary was 31 cents an hour, or $14.88 for a 48-hour work week.
A natural athlete, he played semi-professional baseball in London for$25 a game, almost double the money he was making at CNR. He was a pitcher and also covered first base but his real value was as a hitter. At 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, he had huge hands and a powerful upper body that gave him real batting power. He might have become a professional baseball player, if only the Second World War had not intervened.
In 1942, he joined the RCAF and qualified as a navigator with the rank of pilot officer. He went overseas with RCAF 437 “Husky” Squadron and flew transport aircraft, mainly a military version of the DouglasDC-3 called the Dakota. The squadron was formed on Sept. 14, 1944, and three days later towed gliders filled with troops for Operation Market Garden, the Allied attack on Arnhem in the Netherlands. A few days later, the squadron lost four aircraft while re-supplying the Arnhem area.
When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, his squadron was assigned to fly newly liberated PoWs from Germany to Britain. One of those prisoners was his older brother, Clare, a navigator who had been captured about three years earlier and who was in poor health. Later,he went searching for Clare in an English hospital. “My father used to tell the story of how he went back to London and looked for his brother in a hospital there,” said his daughter, Dawn Hunt. “His brother was down to 90 pounds and he walked right by him without noticing him until someone said, ‘your brother’s over there.’ ”
Mr. Hunt did not return to Canada until July 1946. He went back tothe apprenticeship program at the CNR, working in London and at aMontreal diesel shop that handled the new technology that was replacing the steam locomotive. Mr. Hunt decided to take advantage of the Veterans Act and attend university. The CNR gave him a leave of absence to study electrical engineering at Queen’s University. When he wasn’t at university, he worked at CN to complete his apprenticeship.
The year 1951 was a big one for Mr. Hunt. In June, he received his engineering degree, and in December he was finally awarded his electrician’s certificate from CN. When he finished his apprenticeship program he was earning $1.47 an hour, or $70 a week. At the start of 1952, he moved from being an hourly employee to a monthly salary of $347. As an engineering superintendent he had received a raise of about $500 a year. Mr. Hunt rose through the ranks, helping the railway in the 1950s switch from steam to diesel.
His first appointment to the level of vice-president came in 1970 when he was made responsible for transportation and maintenance. He held a number of jobs, ranging from VP of system rail operations to VP of the CNR Great Lakes Region.
While he was in Toronto in the mid-seventies he was put in charge of overseeing the building of the CN Tower. At a special opening for employees, Mr. Hunt was the first to take the stairs from the top to the bottom.
One of his disappointments, and a huge failure for the CNR, was theTurbo Train, an engine powered by a gas turbine, jet-style, power plant. The high-tech train still holds the railway speed record in Canada, of 226.27 kilometres an hour set on a stretch of track between Montreal and Cornwall, Ont., on April 22, 1976. A loyal company man, he supported the turbo project but, as a practical railroading man, he knew the roadbed would be inadequate for high-speed trains. He was right, and the project was shelved.
Naturally enough, he knew the rail bed intimately. On his days off, he would sometimes walk along railway lines with one or two of his daughters, taking a look at the condition of the roadbed, and sending off a memo on Monday morning if everything wasn’t up to his standards. His daughters remember accompanying their father to train derailments on weekends.
Later in his career, he and two other top executives saved an iconicsteam engine from being turned into scrap. Built in 1944 at theMontreal Locomotive Works, 6060 was a powerful Mountain Typelocomotive. It had been withdrawn from service in 1959 and put ondisplay in Jasper National Park in 1962. Ten years later, Mr. Hunt andhis friends had the engine restored to working order and today ithauls a tourist train out of Stettler, Alberta.
As a man who ended up in the executive offices but who started in the London car shops, Mr. Hunt was always aware of the safety of people who worked on the railway. Derailments often ended in the death of the engineer if the locomotive went off the track at high speed. The cab would be dragged along the rail bed, filling with ballast, suffocating and crushing those inside. While in charge of the Great Lakes Region, he designed an improvement that prevented ballast, gravel and stones from shooting into the crew area during a derailment. It was known as the Hunt Cab. “The old cab, which jutted out to one side and had a door facing the front of the engine, would in effect scoop up the railway line ballast directly into the cab compartment,” said his daughter, Lynn Beach.
During the course of his career, Mr. Hunt was always moving. He spent a lot of time shuffling between jobs in Toronto and at CN headquarters in Montreal and also lived in many cities, from Battle Creek, Mich., where he ran CN’s Grand Trunk Western subsidiary, to Belleville, Ont.[i]
Keith Elmore Hunt was born on Sept. 12, 1923, in Frome, Ont. He died of complications from a fall on April 21, 2008, at Toronto. He was 84.
He is survived by his daughters, Lynn, Dawn and Victoria.
[i] Adapted from the Globe & Mail