After a nationwide search that began in November, the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority (WURA) has offered the position of general manager to Michael Bagwell of the small community of Hurley, Miss. He has tentatively accepted the position contingent on a tour of the two counties and the railroad line next week.
Bagwell, 51, was the unanimous choice of the WURA search committee which consisted of Stephen Adams of rural Enterprise, Marc Stauffer of Elgin and Myron Kirkpatrick of Joseph. Over 80 persons applied for the position with extensive phone interviews conducted with the top 13 candidates. Four candidates were re-interviewed by phone as finalists with the three committee members and a consultant independently, and unanimously, selecting Bagwell as the man for the job.
After graduating from the University of Mississippi which he attended on a football scholarship as a split end, Bagwell went to work for the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad in 1977 as a laborer. He was promoted through engineering departments, and in 1986 became track supervisor and chief engineer of the Mississippi Export Railroad in Louisville, Kentucky.
That was when he began a serious love affair with short line railroads which has lasted 16 years. With 20 people reporting directly to him, Bagwell was mindful of the needs of railroad tracks, bridges and structures.
In 1992 he was promoted again to the position of vice president and general manager of the same line. At that time he became directly responsible for the railroad's profit and loss, and focused in the areas of marketing, engineering, transportation and mechanical (maintenance). From 60 to 85 persons were under his supervision at that time.
In 1997 the Mississippi Export Railroad expanded to include a construction company called MSE Services. It built and repaired railroad track and offered services to existing railroad lines such as the maintenance and switching of cars. In 1999, while remaining in the position of vice president of the Mississippi Export Railroad, Bagwell was named president of MSE services.
Bagwell became aware of the WURA position via the Internet and has researched all he could find on northeast Oregon, an area he has never visited. He has visited the Canadian Rockies and, through his Internet research, describes Wallowa and Union counties as "the most beautiful place I have ever seen."
On Jan. 29, next Wednesday, Bagwell is scheduled to view the 63 miles of railroad track between Elgin and Joseph that he will be responsible for. He will view the track by high rail. On the following day he will meet with groups and the public in Wallowa County. On Jan. 31 Bagwell will do the same in Union County.
Bagwell will be making four agenda stops in Wallowa County Thursday, Jan. 30. At 8:30 a.m. he will meet with economic leaders of the community at the Bronze Antler Bed & Breakfast in Joseph. After that session, at 11 a.m., he will meet with the Friends of the Joseph Branch and members of the general public at Plush West in Enterprise. From 2:30 p.m. until 3:30 p.m. Bagwell will be available to meet the general public in the courtroom of the Wallowa County Courthouse in Enterprise. That evening he will meet informally with WURA members at a site yet to be named.
Expressing excitement about the caliber of individual WURA is hiring is search committee chairman Stephen Adams. He said that Bagwell is turning down a seven-state federal administrative railroad position to head up the local line. The railroad expert from a small Mississippi town 20 miles from the Gulf Coast says he is doing so because a shortline position is more satisfying from an emotional standpoint, that it gives him "an opportunity to wear more hats."
Bagwell, providing the late January tour is agreeable to both parties, will bring his wife with him to northeast Oregon. She is a paralegal. They have five sons, two (twins) of which are freshmen in college, one an Army Ranger in Kentucky and two engaged in the business world in Baton Rouge, La.
Though he admits that he has much to learn about the Joseph Branch, Bagwell hopes to develop both the freight and excursion aspects of what for a number of years was technically an abandoned line. It has been taken off of the abandoned status but, other than two weeks of use last June by Wallowa Forest Products, has seen next to no rail traffic.
Wallowa and Union Counties purchased the segment of track from Idaho Northern & Pacific Railroad at the end of May, 2002, and are scheduled to determine who will operate the railroad line this May. Until that date Idaho Northern remains in charge of operations.
"All a shortline has to offer is service," says Bagwell. "Every employee has to be very mindful of service to the customer."
Bagwell has remained active in the communities he has lived in. He is a board member of the Singing River Hospital Systems in southern Mississippi, a hospital network with a budget of $250 million annually with a payroll of 2,500 employees. He has been president of a two-county branch of the United Way. "I have always thought community involvement is truly important," he says.