“I was born in a train,” Metra Union Pacific West Line conductor JJ Keigley said Tuesday with a serious expression before breaking into a laugh.
But the joke was a little bittersweet for the 73-year-old, retiring after 54 years.
UP regulars never had a boring trip with Keigley, who got to know their routines, birthdays and vacation plans. His spectacular tie collection (“I have 22 Christmas ties alone.”) and Halloween costumes, including Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chaplin, made newbies feel at home and coaxed smiles from grumpy early risers.
“He was one of the best reasons to get up in the morning, so I can catch the morning train with him,” commuter Dory Feliciano said. “He always went out of his way to greet everyone. His uniform was crisp and well-ironed. Very dapper and charming.”
West Chicagoan Keigley typically rose before dawn Monday through Friday for his early morning shift on the UP West between Elburn and the city. On his last day, “I slept in until 4 a.m.,” he joked.
A posse that included Keigley’s brother, sister and friends accompanied him on the 5:44 a.m. inbound train, passengers wished him well and Union Pacific threw a party at Ogilvie Transportation Center.
Among the entourage was Dean Moose, a retired conductor, trained by Keigley.
As an instructor, Keigley “made it fun, but he was strict,” Moose said. “It’s complicated. It’s heavy machinery. He made sure we knew the rules.”
On the train, “he was always in a good mood. I’m sure he has bad days, but you just don’t see them.”
Keigley’s father was a railroader who encouraged his son to pursue a similar career. But Keigley found out early how tough the industry could be as a UP brakeman at age 18.
“I wanted to quit,” he recalled. “It was a dangerous job at times.”
The Vietnam War gave a whole new meaning to peril for him. He was drafted into the Army in 1969.
“I went to Vietnam the day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, July 20, 1969, and I came home one year later,” he said.
He’s still reticent about his wartime experiences. “I stay away from it.”
Back in Illinois, a conductor job waited for him on UP’s freight side. Keigley recalled busy runs between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa, “the city of seven smells,” with pungent odors from DuPont and corn processing plants.
But his forte was in passenger rail. Although collecting fares is the most visible part of their work, conductors like Keigley do everything from monitoring train speeds and the presence of work crews to throwing switches, coupling cars, filling out voluminous paperwork and keeping the hundreds of people being carried at high speeds safe.
The latest duty is mask patrol, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although colleagues named him the “social butterfly,” Keigley said he is “hard core” on masks.
“I carry about 40 with me,” he said. “I’m very polite. I say, ‘Do you have a mask? No? Well, let me get you one.’”
His courteous demeanor has endeared Keigley to riders, but he can also get tough with unruly sorts when necessary.
“If I boot someone off the train, my bosses know it must be something important. Normally, I can handle it,” he said.
But commuters were more likely to see him springing into action over a health crisis.
“The No. 1 delay is medical” emergencies, said Keigley, who’s been on duty for heart attacks and cases of hypoglycemia.
Keigley “personifies what a Metra conductor should be,” former executive director and board Director Don Orseno said.
And that includes the Halloween costumes. One UP West regular never made eye contact with Keigley. But when Keigley showed up once outfitted as Waldo from “Where’s Waldo?” that changed.
“That man looked up and from that day on, he was the friendliest, most wonderful guy,” Keigley said.
With co-workers as a second family, he said Metra riders “are my third family.”
“I’ve gone through three generations of passengers,” he said. “They meet on the train, then all of a sudden, they get married and have children. And their children get on the train and they grow up. Last week, I cried three times. I’m going to miss them.”