A summer job that Tony Reck took while he was pursuing an aviation degree led to a much more "grounded" career that has spanned the last 50 years.
Reck, today the chairman and CEO of the Paducah-based P&L Railway, had gone to college at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale for a couple of semesters, and then into the Air National Guard.
"I knew SIU had a good flight school and aviation department, and I was going to go back there," Reck recalled. "My parents had a friend who was starting up a flight school near Parks Air College in East St. Louis, Illinois, so I decided to go there.
"After my first year, I hired on at the (Illinois Central) railroad as a summer job in 1969. I ended up working nights and going to school in the daytime."
He earned his aviation degree, went back to SIU's Edwardsville campus and completed a bachelor's degree. He continued working at the railroad, and after five years as a switchman/brakeman, was prepared to take a different job in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois, when fate intervened.
"They (the railroad) realized I had a college degree and wanted to interview me," he said. "They told me I wouldn't even have to move (from East St. Louis). I wasn't crazy about where I was living, but I listened."
In the interview, Reck was asked what he wanted to do. While not particularly interested in transportation at that point, "I'd heard about his new vice president in sales and said I'd be interested in that. So they put me in the sales department in downtown St. Louis."
Reck moved around a bit, spending time in, among other cities Memphis, Atlanta and Chicago. During his time in St. Louis, he got put in the coal department.
"I handled the coal for this division here, the Kentucky division, and got very involved in the operation and marketing this branch line from the (then) IC Railroad," he said.
In Chicago, Reck helped the IC write a five-year plan, as the Staggers Act of 1980 loosened the regulations on railroads so they could start trying to make a profit.
"They had to let some lines go that were just not profitable," he said, noting they were "trying to run a business and not a government-controlled railroad."
When the west Kentucky line came up for sale, local businessmen Jim Smith and David Reed (whom Reck had previously met) bought it, and the Paducah & Louisville Railway was born.
"They hired a guy named Jim Johnson to come down and start the railroad. David got ahold of me and asked me if I'd be interested in coming down and helping," Reck said. "I moved here in March of '86."
According to Reck, "the true visionaries for what's P&L today were Jim Smith and David Reed. They had the foresight to save the railroad from just going into somebody's hands who couldn't afford it. Not just anybody could afford to buy a railroad."
The large railroads, like the Norfolk Southern, CSX, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern, are defined as Class I (set up by revenue). P&L Railway meets the revenue threshold for Class II. Smaller short lines are considered Class III.
Reck became president of P&L in 1988, when it was sold to investment bankers. In 1995 it was purchased by management, and CSX was a major investor. In 1995, Reck became chairman and CEO.
P&L moved into its present headquarters at 200 Clark St. five years ago.
Some misconceptions still exist about the railroad, Reck said, including that it is owned by the government.
"We think, we know we're probably the only form of transportation in the U.S. that is not subsidized," he said. "We own our land. We pay taxes on our land. We have to maintain it, and all our rolling stock is owned. We may lease a locomotive here and there, but for the most part we own all our own equipment and maintain all of our equipment."
P&L Transportation's holdings include P&L Railway, Evansville Western Railway and Appalachian and Ohio Railroad, with approximately 400 employees overall. All railroads are centrally dispatched from Paducah.
P&L consists of about 280 miles on track, all continuous welded rail. It connects to five Class I railroads.
"Most of what we do is bulk traffic," Reck said. "Coal is by far the biggest percentage of our business. No. 2 is chemicals, or chemical-related products, and aggregates."
Reck and his wife, Farideh, have a combined family of six adult children and six grandchildren.
"I think Paducah is a very good community," he said. "It's good for me because I like outdoor activities."
When thinking about his career, Reck reflects on the opportunities he has had along the way, particularly with Illinois Central.
"I went through sales and another section of marketing, industrial development. In fact, I spent two weeks in Kentucky in training -- they give their people on-site development and things like that. So I was very fortunate.
"And, the coal department was more developmental sales," he said. "I got a lot of experience. Because I did have a background in transportation, that made it easier."
He is proud of the success of the railroad, which now operates debt-free, and of its employees.
He also remembers the change of scenery that brought him to Paducah back in 1986.
"I left a nice office on the 27th floor overlooking Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan to come to Kentucky Avenue," Reck said, referring to the railroad's first location in Paducah.
"I never looked back. It's been great. P&L's probably one of the few long-term successful short lines in the country."