R.J. “Rick” Corman, the Jessamine County entrepreneur who built a backhoe business into a multimillion-dollar railroad and construction company, died Friday. He was 58.
Company spokesman Noel Rush said Mr. Corman died about 11 a.m. at his home in Nicholasville. Rush said the company’s officials would have a statement later.
University of Kentuck men’s basketball coach John Calipari, a friend of Mr. Corman, posted on Twitter shortly after noon: “I’m not in the frame of mind to talk about it right now, but I will shortly. Rest in peace, my good friend.”
Calipari also tweeted, “It’s been a tough day.”
Mr. Corman had been diagnosed in 2001 with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that attacks the plasma cells in bone marrow and destroys bones. The same disease took the lives of Walmart founder Sam Walton in 1992 and former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in 2011.
As the founder and sole owner of R.J. Corman Railroad Group, Mr. Corman presided over the Nicholasville-based company that became one of only two major companies offering 24-hour emergency derailment cleanup for railways.
The company employs more than 1,100 people in 22 states. In a profile of Mr. Corman published in March 2011, Fortune magazine estimated the company’s 2010 annual revenues at $300 million and after-tax profits at $50 million.
In that same article, senior editor-at-large Carol Loomis, who later co-wrote a 2012 book with corporate titan Warren Buffett, said she realized that Mr. Corman “just might be — apologies here to the Reader’s Digest, which popularized this title — the Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met in my more than half-century at Fortune. … In the way he operates — and faces the world — Rick Corman is truly larger than life.”
That persona was reflected in the company’s steel-and-glass headquarters and aircraft hangar on the U.S. 27 Bypass in Nicholasville, which hosted Chamber of Commerce dinners and fund-raisers. In 2010, former President Bill Clinton spoke there as part of a fund-raising dinner for the Lexington Hearing Speech Center.
Behind the hangar is a landing strip where University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari and UK football coach Mark Stoops arrived in the Commonwealth aboard a Corman jet.
Calipari and Mr. Corman became good friends, and Calipari would occasionally solicit prayers for Rick through Twitter. Calipari also tweeted this: “Had my birthday breakfast with my friend Rick Corman @WaffleHouse. What’s better than that?”
Calipari and Mr. Corman were picked as the No. 1 and No. 3 most influential people in the Lexington area by Herald-Leader readers in poll results released in March 2013. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray was No. 2.
Richard Jay Corman grew up in a house near his company’s corporate headquarters. His father, Jay Corman, was a state highway worker who retired as an assistant foreman making $6.25 an hour. His mother, Maudie Corman, was a homemaker.
His paternal grandfather, Carl Corman, made 11-year-old Rick a 25 percent partner in a business that hauled cattle, hogs and junk. After graduating from high school in 1973, Mr. Corman learned the excavation business through his uncle, Clay Corman, and then bought a backhoe and a dump truck to pick up whatever jobs he could.
The dump truck was red, which, along with silver, became the signature colors for every locomotive, truck, helicopter, and jet plane in the R.J. Corman fleet.
“You can’t be good if you don’t look good,” Mr. Corman told Fortune magazine.
Mr. Corman’s first exposure to the railroad business came when he was hired to do backhoe work for the old LN Railroad, digging out and repairing railroad crossings. He developed a reputation for doing this work better and faster.
The seeds for the growth of the Corman empire were planted in 1984, when Congress began deregulating the railroad industry with what is known as the Staggers Act. Larger railroads began to get rid of small stretches of unprofitable rail line. They also began to farm out maintenance, construction, derailment cleanups and other jobs they found too costly to specialized and often non-union organizations like Mr. Corman’s.
His first acquisition as a railroad owner was a 20-mile short line he bought in 1987 in the Bardstown area from the old LN Railroad. On that stretch, he started My Old Kentucky Dinner Train in 1988.
Using a rail car that was part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1969 funeral cortege, the dinner train still takes excursions through the rolling countryside north of Bardstown as diners feast on entrees such as prime rib or barbecued scallops.
In 1996, R.J. Corman Railroad Group acquired the Allentown and Pennsylvania lines from Conrail, the reorganized set of railroads that had gone into bankruptcy in the 1970s.
“There was so much repair work necessary to get them back to where they needed to be,” Mr. Corman told the Herald-Leader in 2004.
R.J. Corman Railroad Group operates more than 600 miles of short-line railroads, which carry peanuts, aluminum ingots, alcohol, paper, plastic, fertilizer, limestone, scrap paper, brick, corn syrup and oil.
In late 2011, Mr. Corman entered into a partnership with Toyota to provide railcar switching, vehicle shuttling and loading, and track maintenance at the automaker’s Corolla manufacturing plant in Blue Springs, Miss.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, R.J. Corman Railroad Group restored 40 miles of CSX track in Mississippi and Louisiana and rebuilt seven CSX bridges. The company also participated in the cleanup and reconstruction of CSX’s Gentilly railroad yard in New Orleans.
“We couldn’t afford to fail,” Mr. Corman said in 2006. “There was a giant bull’s-eye on our forehead. The whole industry was watching.”
The company’s “storm team” also fixed railroads damaged by other hurricanes, floods, and blizzards from Texas to Vermont.
Closer to home, Mr. Corman was known for his annual Fourth of July picnic. Thousands of invited guests came to his Jessamine County farm to partake of summer fixings, while thousands more watched the evening fireworks from the surrounding countryside.
Mr. Corman and his company were the largest philanthropic supporters of St. Joseph Hospital. They provided the money to establish St. Joseph-Jessamine R.J. Corman Ambulatory Care Center in Nicholasville in 2009. And the company provided a gift to the St. Joseph Hospital Foundation to bring digital mammography services to the Nicholasville center in 2013.
When Jessamine County received a donated 1925 steam locomotive and coal car to display in a local park, they were moved at no cost to taxpayers by Mr. Corman’s company. Mr. Corman also donated a red caboose that was once displayed in Carlisle and put down the section of track on which the train now rests in Riney B Park (the park is named for a railroad line) off the U.S. 27 Bypass in Nicholasville.
Mr. Corman’s cancer was discovered in 2001, after he felt excruciating pain in his back while running in a park in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He had taken some friends and relatives there to see the blooming of the tulips.
He underwent a stem-cell bone marrow transplant in November 2001 at Harvard University’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Mr. Corman told the doctors later, “For every year that I keep coming back up here I will donate ‘X’ dollars for your research. When I stop coming up here, so will the money.”
It was at Dana-Farber that Mr. Corman would become friends with Ferraro, who in 1984 became the first female vice-presidential candidate for a major party when Democrat Walter Mondale picked her as his running mate. Ferraro succumbed to the disease in 2011.
A second stem-cell bone marrow transplant was performed on Mr. Corman in June 2008.
Mr. Corman, business associates said, was successful in part because he could anticipate the future. But in terms of his health, he also knew that one day his cancer would finally overcome.
“The disease I have is sitting, waiting at a stop sign,” he said in a 2006 interview with the Herald-Leader. “It keeps looking, looking, looking. One day, it will decide to move again when it thinks the time is right. If it comes back, it will come back with a vengeance.”
In April 2011, a scan indeed found that the disease had returned. Mr. Corman’s doctor believed the relapse had occurred as a result of Rick temporarily stopping his chemotherapy after he broke his collarbone in a snowmobile accident.
In early August 2011, Mr. Corman fell after getting out of bed trying to stop a leg cramp. He broke two ribs, but after being treated at a Lexington hospital, he was released later that morning and went back home to rest.
While he was home, his ribs were bleeding and his lung was punctured on the left side. That led to him being rushed by ambulance back to the hospital for a six-day stay. He later began another round of chemotherapy in September 2011 as doctors hoped to get the myeloma back into remission so that Mr. Corman could have a third bone marrow transplant.
But by July 2012, plans for another transplant had been put on hold because the Dana-Farber doctors felt it was better managed through medication, according to the periodic medical updates that were posted on the Corman company’s website.
In recent years, Mr. Corman and a partnership that included Clay Corman fought in the state and federal courts over a Nicholasville subdivision that the partnership developed near Mr. Corman’s property. The parties reached a settlement ending half a dozen lawsuits in the spring of 2013.
In January 2013, Craig King was named president of R.J. Corman Railroad Group. The former CSX executive succeeded Tammie L. Taylor, who was in a long-time relationship with Rick Corman. Upon King’s hiring, Taylor was appointed vice chairman of the board of directors after 28 years with Corman Railroad Group.
Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter:@vhspears