Mentoring is a longstanding tradition of the river. It is best defined as the relationship between one experienced and one inexperienced crew member; to teach, train, and share knowledge of a specific skill.
This month, Captain Brent Willits shares with us his experiences of his mentor, Captain Walter A. 'Hoolie' Bowermaster!
“In 1976, at 17 years of age, I went to the Clinton airport and boarded an Ozark Airlines flight to St. Paul where I joined the M/V Luke Gladders, a 3200 H.P. river towboat that traveled the Upper Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri to St. Paul, Minnesota. I caught the boat at Lamberts Landing where I quickly discovered the life of a deckhand is one of hard physical labor, long hours, and loneliness. Part of the of a Deckhand‘s daily routine includes polishing the brass fixtures in the wheelhouse. Most of the crew avoided this particular job because it was considered menial and tedious. I always volunteered for the task; it was my chance to watch the pilot as he steered the huge boat and tow her down the river. I found the pilot’s duties fascinating and even dreamed that maybe, one day; I could be a River Pilot too! Of course, this was a lofty, almost unattainable goal for a lowly Deckhand like me.
Deckhands were not allowed to speak in the wheelhouse because the pilot needed complete silence to concentrate on the difficult task at hand. In fact, because of their lofty position, most officers would not even speak to a crewmember unless it was to give orders or chew you out for a mistake. They clearly considered themselves superior. That is when Captain Walter A. (Hoolie) Bowermaster took over as the new Master of the M/V Luke Gladders.
Captain Hoolie was different; he treated everyone with respect no matter what his or her job. He even carried his own suitcase when he boarded the vessel, which was unheard of for an Officer! He had a big ego but I think this may have been a requirement of the profession. He always said, “Any River Pilot who doesn’t think he is the best in the business is in the wrong business!” Now as I shined the brass in the wheelhouse I would listen to him talk for hours about his philosophy on all matters. He was a very positive and outgoing person who always held me spellbound; I hung on his every word.
One day while I was cleaning out the spittoon (yep, that’s right, a spittoon… Yuk….!) Captain Hoolie said, “Son you can do anything if you put your mind to it…. One day you will be Captain of your own vessel, and when you do make it, don’t ever forget what it was like to be a Deckhand”.
He made the statement in such a matter-of-fact way that I began to believe that maybe I could be a River Pilot! I also promised myself that day if I ever did achieve this goal, I would treat my crew with the same respect as Captain Hoolie treated me.
Back then, I considered being aboard a towboat to be similar to prison life with the additional possibility of drowning. On most boats the officers kept to themselves, they had their own lounge separate from the crew and we were not allowed in “Officer Country”. Captain Hoolie changed the policy so we could use the officers’ lounge when we were off watch (so long as we had on clean clothes because we would get very dirty working on the barges).
Traditionally working on a towboat is a seven-day a week, 12-hour a day job. Captain Hoolie set goals for us and if we met the goals, we could have weekends off. No cleaning, painting or other busy work, only what was necessary to keep the boat underway. We worked hard, (we actually got more work done in five days than we did in seven) and we did not mind because we had so much fun doing it. Sometimes when he would get off watch, he would come and help us with a project, usually something involving heavy physical labor. He always said it was for the exercise but now I know different, he did it to show us that our work was important and that we were important. In the process, he gained a great deal of respect from the crew.
Life aboard the Luke Gladders became much more rewarding. The crew worked hard all week to be able to relax on the weekend. Because of our efforts, our boat was the best-looking on the river, gleaming in the sunlight as we moved cargo along the mighty Mississippi River. Then Captain Hoolie made another announcement. On Saturday nights, any crewmember that wished to do so was allowed to come to the pilothouse not to shine the brass, but simply to visit the pilothouse to watch the river towns and breathtaking scenery drift by. Captain Hoolie used this time to give instruction to our First Mate who was studying to be a River pilot. Captain Hoolie truly cared about his crew and it showed. I will always have great respect and deep admiration for him.
Captain Hoolie passed away a number of years ago now and I attended his funeral. The size of the crowd was overwhelming, there to pay their respects. People were lined up out the door of the funeral home and cars backed up onto the street because the parking lot was full. A true testimonial to a life well lived!
I have been fortunate and met with some measure of success in my life; a great deal of the credit belongs to Captain Hoolie. He made me feel special and believe in myself. Incidentally, as a result of his faith in me I did become a River Pilot and now a Captain. As I write this I am instructing my First Mate while he steers the vessel up the river, passing along the knowledge and skills to the next generation. Paying it forward just like Captain Hoolie taught me.”
Sharing your journey may encourage others to follow your lead by walking in your footsteps or stepping up and becoming a mentor to another crew member wishing to advance. If you are interested in sharing your own personal experiences of mentoring with RiverWorks Discovery, contact us so that we can use them in our feature, Mentor Monday. We can share some thoughts to get you started!