Ryan Schoenfeldt, 34

Ryan Schoenfeldt, a Cedarburg-based railroad photographer best known for his creative portrayal of Midwestern railroads and an innate understanding of their operations, died suddenly on Tuesday. He was 34.

Donna Schoenfeldt, Ryan’s mother, recalls her son’s passion for trains formed even before his Aug. 11, 1976, birth when the trip to the hospital was interrupted by the passing of a Soo Line freight train at a grade crossing on Fond du Lac’s south side. During her son’s toddler years, when the family lived in Oakfield, Donna remembers Ryan spending many times in his high chair, gazing at passing Chicago & North Western locomotives just beyond the family’s backyard.

Schoenfeldt’s first efforts in railroad photography came in 1990 with the assistance of his father, James Schoenfeldt, when the father-son team took trips to the Manitowoc depot to photograph trains of the Fox River Valley Railroad. In time, Ryan began making solo trips to the depot on his bicycle, befriending agent/operator Mark Krejcarek.

Krejcarek, as Schoenfeldt later recounted to his friends, introduced the teenaged Schoenfeldt to the finer points of railroad operations, from handing train orders to passing trains and special movements, like Chicago & North Western’s preserved steam locomotive 1385, that ended up being the subject of his first photographs.

Throughout the early 2000s, Schoenfeldt photographed throughout his native Wisconsin, but also traveled extensively, photographing fast-paced Toronto, Ont., commuter operations, heavy freight trains waging battle with the hills of southern Indiana, and grain trains gliding along the banks of the Missisippi River in Minnesota.

In January 2005, Schoenfeldt found an outlet for his work in Trains magazine, which published a photo he took near Peoria, Ill., of a Peoria & Pekin Union Railway train. Since then, more than 30 examples of Schoenfeldt’s photography and writing were featured in the columns and full-length feature stories of Trains magazine, as well as its annual special issue, Locomotive.

Between 2008 and 2010, the Madison-based Center for Railroad Photography & Art honored Schoenfeldt’s photography with six awards, including a second place honor in 2010 for his photography of Canadian Pacific train dispatcher Mike Day going about his duties in Latta Yard, Ind. While Schoenfeldt clearly was passionate about railroads and the art he created, he had a stronger, never-ending love for his family, especially his beloved niece and nephew, Caitlyn and Zachary Pentek, twin children of sister Debbie Pentek. Schoenfeldt is survived by his loving parents, James and Donna (Heidtke) Schoenfeldt. He is further survived by Uncle William (Debbie) Heidtke of Cedarburg, Aunt Nancy (Mike) Switzer of Cedarburg, Aunt Patricia (William) Grace of Owasso, Okla., Uncle Robert (Jody Bandlow) Heidtke of Cedarburg and Thomas (Jennifer) Schoenfeldt of Oakfield; cousins, Troy Dehn, Tyler Hudzinski, Lee Heidtke, Danielle Halpin, Amanda Grace, Benjamin Grace, Andy Heidtke, Samantha Heidtke, Patrick Heidtke and Tommy Schoenfeldt.

Ryan was preceded in death by his Grandma Junice (Junie) Heidtke, Grandfather Martin Heidtke, Grandmother Lydia Schoenfeldt and Grandfather Fritz Schoenfeldt.

Likewise, Schoenfeldt enjoyed strong bonds with friends both inside and outside the arena of railroad photography, and made many special connections with the children of his friends, who have come to know Schoenfeldt as "Uncle Ryan."

Friends and family are invited to celebrate Ryan’s life with a v isitation at the Mueller Funeral Home & Crematory in Cedarburg on Friday, April 1, 2011, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. A memorial gathering will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 2, 2011, at First Immanuel Lutheran Church, N67 W622 Evergreen Blvd, Cedarburg, with a memorial service at the church beginning at 12:00 p.m.

— Sayre C. Kos

For online condolences please visit www.muellerfuneralhome.com.

Mueller Funeral Home & Crematory is serving the family.