Keeping His Career On Track

Max Ephraim Played An Important Role In Keeping The Trains Running

John Owens

Chicago Tribune, August 27, 1995, Tempo Page 1 (Copyright 1995)

For as long as he can remember, Max Ephraim has been obsessed with solving mechanical problems. The obsession began as a child growing up on the South Side of Chicago; it blossomed when he began working as an engineer in the locomotive section of McCook-based General Motors Electro-Motive division.

"That's probably why I always enjoyed my work," says Ephraim, an Evergreen Park resident. "From the time I could talk, I wanted to be an engineer and that was it."

That obsession engendered a long, illustrious career with General Motors . Ephraim worked for 44 years at the company, starting out as a 21-year-old draftsman in 1939 and ending his career as the chief engineer for GM's Electro-Motive division in 1983. During that period, he was one of the people responsible for bringing the diesel locomotive along from its adolescence to its present status as the elder statesman of freight carriers.

Among his accomplishments: helping design and develop the "GP7" locomotive, a reliable, economical engine that would be the model for all locomotives built since; spearheading the development of the high-adhesion locomotive, which made it easier for trains to go up a steep grade; helping develop the "710" engine, which improved fuel economy on diesel locomotives ; and helping introduce computer-dictated controls and brake systems on diesel carriers.

"In a word, Max has developed a tradition of excellence in design and leadership," said Richard Dunteman of Darien, the present general director of engineering at GM's Electro-Motive division. "He left our department with an important legacy, and he still is very active with our division."

Ephraim was born to a Jewish father and an Irish mother on the South Side of Chicago in 1917. Although they were not privileged children, Ephraim and his two brothers --Merton and Charles--led what could be termed an idyllic childhood for someone growing up in the Depression. For years, Ephraim's family lived in a bungalow at 1414 W. 72nd St. Young Max was an above-average student who was a member of the National Honor Society and played second-chair saxophone in the orchestra at Englewood High School.

He eventually transferred to Harper High School, from which he graduated in 1936. After graduation, Ephraim attended Illinois Institute of Technology's 3 1/2-year program in engineering. Although he received job offers from the Pullman Car Co. in Chicago and the American Air Filter Co. in Louisville, Kentucky, Ephraim took a job as a draftsman for GM's Electro-Motive division at the then-impressive salary of $125 per month.

"I was used to some anti-Semitism," Ephraim wrote in a family history he has compiled. " my ethnic origin must have worked in my favor as mentioned they did not have Jewish engineers and he thought it was a good idea to hire some."

Ephraim started his career at the GM plant by working on designs for the company's first diesel freight locomotives . Ephraim enjoyed the job, not realizing that he was participating in a radical change in the railroad industry--the shift from steam locomotives , which had been prevalent since the early 1800s, to the diesel engine.

"I didn't know about the historic significance of my work," Ephraim said. "I was just happy to have a job. In those days mechanical engineers started out on the drafting board. Some engineers thought that was demeaning, but I thought it was great because it gave me a sense of how to put things together."

Ephraim's career at GM was interrupted by World War II. In 1943, he enlisted in the Navy, where he was commissioned as an ensign. Ephraim eventually was ordered to duty in the Pacific theater.

After the war, he returned to Electro-Motive, where he began work as a project engineer designing one of his greatest accomplishments: the GP7 locomotive.

The "GP" stands for " General Purpose," but it is better known by railroaders as the "Geep7." According to Ephraim, his supervisors weren't excited about the diesel locomotive with a radically simple design but decided to undertake the project because they thought their main competitor, American Locomotive Works, had a similar engine planned.

The engine proved popular because it was a road switcher, which meant it was possible to reverse the direction of the engine's travel without having to use a roundhouse.

But perhaps the key to the locomotive was its engine, located under a long hood, with outside walkways for workers and the engine crew. The long hood made it easy for technicians to maintain the locomotive, especially in areas with no railroad shop facilities.

General Motors officials disparagingly referred to these locomotives as their "Model T's," Ephraim said. But the locomotives soon became popular, particularly among freight railroad lines. By the mid-1950s, the GP7 and its successor, the GP9, had become the most popular locomotives in the railroad business.

After constructing 2,729 GP7s and 4,257 GP9s, General Motors stopped making the locomotives in 1959. But virtually every diesel locomotive constructed after 1959 was built with "Geep" in mind.

"The locomotives built today are all lineal descendants of the GP7," said Rob McGonigal, the associate editor of Trains magazine. "They all have the road switcher and the long hood on the side of the car. The long hood was revolutionary."

"The people at General Motors didn't think the GP7 would be out on the main lines doing heavy-duty freight service," Ephraim added. "But once the railroads started getting them, they liked these units. In the older streamlined engines, you had to crawl into the engine to repair it. That was difficult for engineers, especially in the warm weather areas like Barstow and Santa Fe, where it's very hot in the engine rooms. With the Geep, all you had to do was open the hood."

After helping with the design of the GP7, Ephraim supervised the test run of the trains in inclement conditions in northern Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana, then oversaw their winterization.

"I recall riding locomotives in Montana and North Dakota with temperatures down to minus-35 degrees Fahrenheit," Ephraim wrote. "Although the weather was miserable, these trips proved to be valuable learning experiences."

Primarily because of his efforts with the "Geep," Ephraim was promoted to locomotive section engineer in 1955 and assistant chief engineer in 1959. Co-workers say that after his series of promotions, Ephraim was even more devoted in his responsibilities as a supervisor.

"He was an enjoyable person and a creative engineer," said Hank Koci of Downers Grove, who worked alongside Ephraim as an assistant engineer and a chief engineer. "I remember Max as a sincere, religious person who communicated well with the people who worked for him. We all admired him."

Ephraim's spiritual life began to change at about the same time his fortunes began to rise at work. During this time, Ephraim became involved with the Assembly of God church. He joined the church after his wife, Audrey, went to meetings at the old Stone Church, located at 70th and Stewart Streets in Chicago and now located in Palos Heights.

"She was talking in tongues . . . and it made a dramatic change in her life," wrote Ephraim of his wife's religious conversion. "She would not hesitate to witness and testify under any conditions, and her life was a living testimony of a spirit-filled woman. This was an experience that I desired . . ."

In the midst of these life changes, Ephraim continued to make important contribution to the Electro-Motive division. In 1959, Ephraim was appointed by GM officials to lead the group that designed the division's new turbo-charged, high-horsepower engine. And in the 1960s, he supervised the initial production of the alternating current generator and the high-adhesion locomotive at General Motors .

"Those were challenging times," Ephraim recalled. "We'd have meetings every Saturday on how to improve these engines. It was tough at the start, but by 1972, we were building five or six turbo-charged engines a day."

Dunteman, who was first employed by the GM division in 1965, was instantly impressed by Ephraim's commitment to his job and his co-workers.

"Max was unforgettable," Dunteman said. "He's a person of high integrity, generally helpful and a very keen design person who was involved in every aspect of production.

"He liked to be involved," he added. "He seemed to know what was going on in the entire department."

Ephraim was promoted to chief engineer of the division in 1973. For the next 10 years, Ephraim's contributions included introducing computer controls to the division's diesel engines and developing new, more sophisticated descendants of the GP7: the SD 40-2 model and the 710 engine.

Despite his personal success, times had changed. Railroads had not been the primary carrier for passengers in the U.S. since the 1950s. Now, in the 1980s, trains were losing their appeal as freight haulers for businesses. Other methods of transportation, most notably trucks, became more popular.

Ephraim retired in 1983, at a time when the demand for freight locomotives was down. "In my 44 years for Electro-Motive, they only lost money one year," Ephraim said, though that changed in subsequent years.

Ephraim, who is 78, lives in a modest house across the street from St. Xavier University with his wife of 54 years. The couple raised nine children, ranging in age from 52 to 33. The children--Janet, Philip, Alice, Daniel, Gary, Paul, Stephen, Lois and James--are spread out from as near as Chicago to as far away as Uganda.

And, when his wife had a stroke in 1989, Ephraim became responsible for most of the shopping and the work around the house.

"I married a very caring person," Audrey Ephraim said. "He worked long hours, but Max has always been a very good husband, and he's been my 24-hour nurse since I had my stroke."

Ephraim has devoted much of his non-working hours to charitable and evangelical activities associated with the Assembly of God movement. An avid writer, he has submitted articles to specialized publications such as Trains magazine and has written a 170-page, self-published family history.

Then there is his work on the boards of Christian television station WCSC (Channel 38) and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

Although Ephraim occupies his time well--in addition to his work at home and occasional visits to the Electro-Motive offices, he is also an avid golfer and bicyclist--he also has strong feelings about his past. The Ephraim house is decorated with numerous photographs of his wife, his children, co-workers and the trains on which he worked.

Ephraim, an accomplished photographer, took many of these pictures. "I was a great believer in taking pictures at work and at home," said Ephraim while leafing through one of his many photo albums. "It's a great way of chronicling your life."

Ephraim is also still a member of the Assembly of God church. And he is now in his 20th year as a volunteer board member at Channel 38.

"He started with us at the urging of our founder, Owen Carr, who knew Max from the Assembly of God Church," said Shirley Rose, the assistant to the president at WCSC. "He's a wonderful man, a neat father and an outstanding Christian."

Still, Ephraim's first love is his work. He visits the Electro-Motive division in McCook whenever possible, and there he can admire the jobs he accomplished in almost a half-century of service.

"I'm happy the way my career turned out," Ephraim said. "We accomplished a lot, and most importantly, I like to think that I left a lot of trained people with General Motors ."

PHOTO (color): Max Ephraim: "I'm happy the way my career turned out." Tribune photo by Walter Neal.

PHOTO: GM Electro-Motive officials posed in 1953 by the streamlined Aero-Train. Three were built but never went into production.

PHOTO: Audrey and Max Ephraim relax in their Evergreen Park home. Tribune photo by Walter Neal.