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