Michael R. Stephens, 59

Like thousands of boys who fell in love with model trains in basements across America, Michael R. Stephens swore allegiance to the hobby. In turn, model railroading helped lead him to a successful career in marketing and publishing, including executive positions at two of Milwaukee’s most venerable companies.

Stephens, until recently the vice president of proprietary products at Wm. K. Walthers Inc., died Tuesday, April 9, 2013, at his home in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, after a long illness. He was 59.

Born July 8, 1953, in Milwaukee, Stephens grew up in Cedarburg, the son of Hugh and Doris Stephens. His exposure to trains came early. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Hugh Stephens was vice president-sales at Kalmbach Publishing Co., known for its Model Railroader magazine. Kalmbach publicity photos of the era show the Stephens family, including Michael and his brother, Bill, posed proudly around Dad’s model train layout.

In those days, the Stephens family often socialized with two of the men who had already made Milwaukee a center of model railroading: Al Kalmbach, who in 1934 founded the publishing company bearing his name; and William K. Walthers, who in 1932 launched Wm. K. Walthers Inc., known as Walthers Trains, which manufactures and distributes model trains and accessories.

Stephens graduated from Cedarburg High School in 1971 and went to work for his father’s new company, Amro Ltd., which imported European-made model trains. Before Hugh Stephens sold the business in 1975, Michael took a job at Kalmbach as a researcher on its Airliners International magazine.

A year later Stephens was promoted to circulation manager and, among other duties, ran Kalmbach’s distribution network, which supplies specialty magazines to thousands of hobby retailers in the U.S. and Canada.

Stephens left Kalmbach in 1976 to get a college degree, studying marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Business Administration.

After UWM, Stephens entered the advertising business in Milwaukee as an account executive, first at R.L. Meyer Advertising and later at Cramer-Krasselt. He eventually joined the award-winning Frankenberry, Loughlin & Constable agency, where he supervised the accounts of several leading Wisconsin firms, including Sargento Cheese, Regalware and Marine Bank.

In the 1990s, after a stint as a vice president at the point-of-purchase marketing firm Frank Mayer & Associates, Stephens formed his own consultancy, The Stephens Group. In July 1999, he married Tammy L. Markiewicz (Stephens), who is an educational consultant, specializing in classroom technology.

Stephens’ work as a consultant led him back to Kalmbach, which he rejoined in 1998, when he was named vice president-marketing on the company’s executive committee, a job he held until 2006. Stephens’ second career at Kalmbach was eventful. He reorganized and expanded the company’s circulation staff and had a major role in developing the Bead & Button Show, now the largest consumer show at Milwaukee’s Delta Center. He headed up the Trains.com family of train-related websites. He also helped lead the World’s Greatest Hobby, a national-promotion campaign sponsored by Kalmbach and several other model-train companies.

Stephens left Kalmbach in 2006 and moved briefly to Des Moines, Iowa, where he was vice president of marketing at August Home Publishing Co.

But he soon felt the pull of model railroading again, and in 2007 he and his wife moved to Long Beach, Calif., when he was named president of Athearn Trains, another veteran manufacturer of locomotives, rolling stock and other products.

Stephens moved back to Milwaukee in 2010 when Walthers CEO Phil Walthers hired him to take charge of the company’s proprietary brands.

As vice president of proprietary products, Stephens led the rebranding efforts for Walthers Proto, Cornerstone and Trainline products. Taking advantage of his instinctive feel for what hobbyists want, he also drove the introduction of the WalthersScenemaster and WalthersMainline brands. Through these efforts, he helped expand and strengthen relationships with several prominent model train and accessory manufacturers.

“Michael was a dear friend, an accomplished professional and valuable team member,” said Phil Walthers. “In the relatively short time he was with Walthers, he accomplished a significant overhaul of the product branding that had eluded us for many years. He was a selfless mentor who cared deeply about the hobby of model railroading, its future and everyone that he worked with. I treasure the time that I spent with him and will miss him greatly. The Walthers team and family will miss him greatly as well.”

Stephens also enjoyed a long relationship with his father, who died in 2004 at the age of 93. Hugh Stephens never really retired, working throughout the 1970s and ’80s as executive secretary of the Model Railroad Industry Association (MRIA). Throughout those later years, Michael and his father continued to pursue their model railroad hobby at the elder Stephens’ home in Cedarburg.

Stephens is survived by his wife, Tammy, of Milwaukee; and his brother, Bill, of Manchester, Conn.

Mueller Funeral Home & Crematory is assisting the family. Online condolences may be sent by visiting www.muellerfuneralhome.com.