I started my river career on the American Queen a decade ago. I had a license from an academy but hadn't used it. I needed work so I found a job on the river. It didn't take long for me to realize, school teaches the test, not life. You'll never quite know how direct seasoned veterans of the river can be until you're on that first day. I was a 24-year-old blonde girl from up north who knew no one and who had come from college. I was not meeting expectations right off the bat.
The overwhelming failure I felt after my first watch left me at an emotional crossroads. I decided I was here for the month, I'll do what I could to make it work. That's what I did, 12 hours a day I fought to make the right choices and earn the respect of the crew and figure my way down this path.
Three weeks in I felt broken. My body was sore, my spirits were low, the captain didn't even call me by name...he called me toots and I was working with a particularly rude crew member. We were in the middle of the docking process and this same crew member overstepped his authority jeopardizing the safety of the crew, so I used some salty language and sent him off deck. I thought, well, now I've done it. So, I went to the captain and let him know what happened. He said "good girl, don't let em step on ya toots. You're doin fine" and slapped me on the shoulder so hard I started coughing.
I was stunned at the response but finally felt like I making headway. I found out later that day the captain just didn't remember my name so that's what I was called...toots. That's how I met my mentor Jerry Joe Jameson.
Joe had a long history of adopting his river kids and making them the best versions of themselves. He didn't suffer a fool, but he could wrestle big egos with dignity. Joe didn't search for talent, it found him and he knew what to do with it. I was hired by one of his river kids and trained by many others. He brought people together by offering a respectful and disciplined work place.
This moment of encouragement on that muggy Maysville morning was what I needed. It changed my trajectory by giving me a sure place to stand. For the next 3 years I worked countless watches with him. I learned to drive by his quotes, many of which I pass along to young Mariners I train. I also learned to temper my response to outside influence, be best prepared to work hard and how to maintain good working relationships with people I liked and those I might not like. A conversation with Joe quickly took me out of the moment and into the bigger picture.
Joe was a monolithic riverman. He started on a paddle powered towboat. His family were all river rats. He was all state in track and football. He was a leading force in the casino boat industry, standardizing safe practices and comradery amongst professionals.
Joe had that thing, that hard to describe quality that so few have. He never referenced his resume, he never dropped a name, he never bragged one time but when Joe walked into the pilothouse you could tell the boss was on deck, and he was a humble gentleman.
Since I've been out here so many have told me how important my presence as a female pilot is for young girls to have opportunities. I have to disagree. Guys like Captain Joe are the ones who help open the door. I might make it more normal to see a woman in the wheelhouse, but mentors like Captain Joe set a standard of professionalism for those in the industry to follow which help talented outsiders find their way to fulfill their potential.
Joe passed away this morning, he left me with a connection to a time when the river was wild, before the big companies, before Radar and Rosepoint to a time when it was about river men and their boats doing a job well.