Delta Queen Stories

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Russ Barnes (rip)

On Jan 24, 2010, at 3:08 PM, Russ Barnes wrote:


Enjoyed seeing some of your Delta Queen "friends" on Facebook. I recognize several like Bodine and Captain Chengery. I was public relations director in the Cincinnati office during the late seventies. I succeeded both Cindy Bacon and John Dreyer in the position of promoting the DQ and MQ.

I came into the company on the cusp of Coke NY acquiring the company from ONA which had just recently exited operations. The Mississippi Queen, still a crippled vessel, was in shakedown at Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans.

Betty Blake hired me. She flew me in from Pittsburgh for an interview in 1976 to the 511 Main Street offices in Cincinnati. The office was decorated like no place I had ever seen. It was opulent and flamboyant, but neither garish on the one hand nor elegant on the other. The executive offices were built with glass walls. The conference room was "see-through." The cubicles along the floor were out in the open like those in a newspaper office.

Betty was as flamboyant. Fur coat on the rack. Colorful, designer, wide-brimmed hats strewn about. All the office colors were red, white, and blue and had patriotic themes in pecurliar good taste. Betty, then President, was earnest, homey, and earthy at the same time. She liked my newspaper stories. She admonished me about good public relations, "The boats are what WE say they are." Sounded at first badly self-serving to me. But as I thought about it, I began to see the kernal of wisdom in her standard operating principle.

I walked in, an employee of DQSCo, in February of 1977. Coke had not fully gotten it's hands around this American heartland, rambunctious, wild-west company. A few Coke-hired employees had just come on deck. Dick, from a California cruise line, became my first boss. During the next five months, I had four different bosses -- many of them moving on. Instability was evident. It unsettled me. Finally Stan Thune, a Coke executive from Hackensack, New Jersey, was brought in to stabilize the company's management, a daunting assignment. Betty Blake remained President, but was, in effect, demoted by Coke. Bill Muster, a guiding inspiration and force of the company for years, had since recently re-located back to California.

A few of the office people I remember from my time with the DQ are the ones I have already mentioned plus Ray Haus, George Koch, Perry Moran, MaryAnn Schnur, Joyce Early, Steve Shanesy, Don Deming.

There was tension between Coke corporate, or corporate-hired, people and old river people -- especially river people closely associated with Cincinnati -- or those descended in some way from the old Greene Line Steamer family of employees. This presented a corporate cultural clash.

Having been hired out of Pittsburgh to Cincinnati at the time of the corporate transition, I was never genuinely accepted by either side. I got along best, I think, with the river people because Pittsburgh is a river town. Though I wasn't from the old Cincinnati crowd either. (Captain Chengery, I think, was in a similar situation following the legendary Cap Wagner.)

I learned a whole heck of a lot at DQSCo: how the whole media world works, how promotions are launched. I was only aboard the boats about every two months for a couple days each sailing. I never acquired an affinity to the "celebrity" side of DQ social life which was intense. But I LOVED being host on the boat to writers, photographers, directors, and all sorts of behind-the-scenes creative and artistic people. I learned a lot from your dad's legacy and Betty's presence, but also a bit too from the Coke people.

Some of the Coke people complained that I took too many scouts, church groups, and school children on tours of the boat free of charge. Betty defended the practice saying that "These are the people who write to Congress to 'save the boat.' " Her insight I understood was that the boats' business was not just ordinary "business." The boats are a public trust as well as an ordinary business. Translated into better understood terms Betty's meaning might have been, "The public part of the company's service is part of its 'branding.' " It's a subtle concept for the business-as-usual person to grasp. And there were some subtle people resident at DQSCo and within the crews on the boats themselves.

What I liked the best was just the fun of it all. The whole enterprise was a support for one rip-roaring, on-going celebration -- some of it hilarious. I mention just a few incidents from my experience. The time at Nauvoo, Illinois when Film Fair in Studio City, CA, under contract from Ogilvy and Mather, a New York ad agency, to do a Merrill Lynch TV commercial. The DQ was to represent the South. They brought in bulls by semi-trailer from somewhere in the West. The agency had to do several "takes; So Captain Chengery had to make the boat go round in circles with 150 passengers aboard. It was to be a 30-second commercial and I insisted in our contract that a one-second tight shot of the DQ's paddlewheel and slogan "Voyages" be included in the final. The way they got the bull herd to charge out of the semi, was, in the distance to raise a cow's tail. After the charge, cowboys on horses rounded the bulls up for another "take."

Or the time when we missed delivering payroll at port and we had Bob from the mailroom drive the payroll in the company van onto a bridge over the Ohio River and drop the bag of money onto the deck as the boat slipped under. Mutiny was evaded once again.

Another time, Pat Robertson, the preacher, was to be on the Phil Donahue show being shot aboard the MQ. He couldn't get aboard in New Orleans; so we hired a scowl out of Baton Rouge. It was run by a crew of tobacco-chewing, beer-drinking rivermen. Robertson -- cameras rolling including from the Good Year blimp aloft -- was there in his blue preacher's suit and with his unctuous smile. When it got time for the transition from the scow to the deck of the MQ, Robertson suddenly couldn't find his sea legs and the cameras recorded the spectacle of him trying shakily, but humorously trying to find out where his footing ought to be.

Russ Barnes

Jim Armstrong

On Sep 2, 2007, at 4:45 PM, Jan & Jim Armstrong wrote:

Hello Nori,

I know you have never heard of me, but 37 years ago when I was a 14/15 year old I poured my heart and soul into getting the Delta Queen her exemption from the SOLAS Act. I think I pounded on every door in my home town of Catlettsburg, KY getting signatures for my petition. I wrote letters, made phone name it. I even actually met your father once....and Betty Blake several times. Now that woman was a ball of fire.

I still have my old SOS SOS DQ certificate.....and one of the highlights of my life was after Marlow Cook, a Senator from my state, engineered the rescue........Betty Blake called (I was stunned) and on the Queen's first trip up the river after our victory had me and a friend of mine, who had also been involved, standing on the river bank in Catlettsburg...they actually stopped the boat and blew a whistle salute to us.

Pretty heady stuff for a youngster. But unfortunately it is a battle we apparently must fight again. I am gone from Catlettsburg for thirty years now and live in the Pittsburgh area. I have written to my representatives in Congress and have friends and family doing the same both in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. I think we are going to get a resolution from the Allegheny County Council next Tuesday urging the continued exemption. We are also going to get one from the Catlettsburg City Council for what it is worth......I still have connections back there. I am also working on some TV, radio and newspaper exposure in the Pittsburgh market. We shall see if that bears fruit.

A number of things bother me this time around......we have no champion in Congress that I know of like Leonor Sullivan in 1970, we have owners who have thrown in the towel, and we have no spark at the center of things like Betty Blake. (I would nominate you for that position......)

Anyway, if there is any possible assistance I can render beyond what I am doing please let me know. I am eager to help and I have time on my hands. We are up against the same old thing as the last time, the committee system of Congress, designed to subvert the will of the public.

I love this magnificent boat nearly as much as you do!

Jim Armstrong

Vicki Webster

Editor's Note: Vicki Webster worked for President Nixon in 1970, during the Save the Delta Queen campaign. Following is one of her memories from those times.

On Oct 1, 2007, at 5:12 PM, Vicki Webster wrote:

Like Mr. Armstrong and many other 1970 crusaders, I still have my SOS SOS DQ certificate. I also have many quirky memories. Probably my favorite is the time when one of my early political mentors, the Allegheny County Republican Chairman, Elsie Hillman, dropped by to visit me at the White House after I'd told her of the Queen's plight. My boss invited her to join us for lunch, and she said, "Oh, I'd love to, but I can't. I have to go see Hugh Scott [then Senate minority leader] about Vicki's boat." From then on around the White House and in western Pennsylvania political circles, the Delta Queen became known as "Vicki's boat."

Thursday, January 21, 2010
My Mother Reprimands the Ghost of Mary Greene
by Psychic Sister Sally (email)
A View from the Psychic Side

When my parents had the chance to cruise the Mississippi on the Delta Queen riverboat, they took it, but when my mother discovered that her cabin had a glitch (it didn't have hot water, or the toilet leaked, or something like that), she immediately brought the glitch to the attention of the powers that be, and my parents were assigned to another cabin. The new cabin was homey, comfortable, and everything worked like a charm. My mother and father made themselves at home.

My poor mother. She usually has trouble sleeping her first night in another place, be it a hotel, someone else's home, or a riverboat, but really, trying to sleep on the Delta Queen was troublesome. The deckhands were dragging furniture across the deck above. Why they were moving furniture while passengers were trying to sleep was a mystery to my mother. She heard chains rattling, and there was a light shining on my father's face as he slept. A ball of light coming from nowhere. "How can he sleep with a light shining on his face like that," wondered my mother, and then watched as the ball of light rolled off of my father's face, down his body, and disappeared. My mother found that awfully strange.

The next morning, after getting very little sleep, my agitated mother sent my father on a mission to investigate the source of the noises of the previous night. The neighbors whom he questioned had not heard a thing. He hadn't either; in fact, he had slept like a log. He spoke to the deckhands and asked if they had been moving furniture around. They had not.

When one of the deckhands questioned my father and discovered my parents were in cabin 109, the deckhand told my father that the room had been Mary Greene's, long-time Captain of the Delta Queen. She had so loved the Delta Queen she had died in her cabin. My father was cautioned not to bring alcohol into the room or glasses would fly and shatter, as Capt. Greene's spirit had never left the ship, and she did not approve of alcohol. It was only after Mary Greene died that a bar was installed on the Delta Queen. Immediately after the first drink was sold, a barge had run smack into the Delta Queen. The name of the barge: the Mary Greene. Although at the time of my parents' trip there were bars on board, none of the crew members would bring an alcoholic drink into Capt. Mary's room.

My father was cautious about telling my mother that the room was haunted. He didn't want to freak her out, but she guessed it nonetheless. My parents are not drinkers. Even so, when my mother walked into the room with tea, she would talk to Capt. Mary and tell her that there was no alcohol in the cup - only tea. The night noises continued and the closet door would open and shut on its own. Sleep deprived, on edge, and a little aggravated one night, my mother yelled at the ghost, saying, "Jesus Christ, SHUT UP!" The noises abruptly stopped, and my mother had a peaceful night.

In relating her haunted room story to other guests at the dinner table, my mother was laughed at, called crazy (we're always called "crazy"), and made to look like a fool, so she challenged everyone at her table. "Alright, you all have drinks on the table. Pick them up and let's go for a walk to my cabin."

Every single dinner guest declined. My mother taunted them all, asking, "What are you so afraid of? Are you all crazy?" but still, they would not go to the cabin.

Years later, I was competing in an international competition that was to be held in New Orleans. My parents were going to meet me there, and we were all going to sail on the Delta Queen. However, one month before the competition, Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans. I never got to sail on the Delta Queen. In 2008, she was retired as a riverboat. After 81 years in service, she now serves as a National historic landmark.

Editor's note: For photos and more information about Captain Mary Greene, click here.

Stan Rogers

I started work on the Delta Queen in January of 1997. Quarters were a little cramped compared to my cruise ship lodgings. But I had my own room with a bed, a shelf and a sink. I lived, literally, thirty seconds away from my post at the piano; out the door, up the stairs, through the pantry, into the dining room and onto the piano bench.

During my precious time off, you could usually find me in one of three places: my room with my ghetto blaster, CD's and a book, on the bow, or pointy end, of the boat with my discman, CD's and a book, or at the stern, or blunt end, of the boat with my discman, CD's and a book. While hanging out where the deck crew, first mate and second mate congregate, I got to know some of the procedures and terminology used over the course of everyday paddleboat navigation.

Sometimes the captain didn't want the boat to come into town until a specific time. If he projected an ETA that was too early, he would pull over to the side of the river, the shore, as it were, and tie up to a tree for a few hours. They call that maneuver "chokin' a stump."

In the spring, when the river is typically swollen, it may surprise you to know that the river flows faster in the middle than it does near the shore. A river vessel going upstream can make better time navigating the shallower waters. The shores of the southern portions of the Mississippi River are cloaked with willow trees, who like to measure the depths of the water highway with their stringy limbs. Subsequently, when the boats hug the shore closer than usual, they call that maneuver "running the willies."

On his CD "From Fresh Water," Stan Rogers sings a tune that references a phenomenon called a "white squall", a sudden and violent windstorm event that has received the blame for numerous deaths and capsizings in the history of seamanship. They are rare at sea, but common on the Great Lakes. In Rogers' song of the same name, the ship loses a young member of the crew to a white squall. During the chorus, the narrator sings:

But I told that kid a hundred times, "Don't take the Lakes for granted.

They go from calm to a hundred knots so fast they seem enchanted."

But tonight some red-eyed Wharton girl lies staring at the wall,

And her lover's gone into a white squall.

Folk song singer Stan Rogers had intentions to record one album with songs about the Atlantic Ocean, one album with songs about fresh water lakes and one album with songs about the Pacific Ocean. Of course, this is the second album. Certain aspects of the production of this album date it. There are times when the music played on this album personifies the production values of the early 1980's. But I enjoy this CD for the craftsmanship of the music, words and sentiments.

Today, I drove over the Illinois River south of Peoria, Illinois, and over the Mississippi River straddling the Quad Cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois. Yesterday I crossed the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia. I played the calliope on the Delta Queen in all of these places. Those were great days.

Credits: To the deck crew of the Delta Queen, who kept me in the know of how to handle a paddlewheeler. Thanks for the lessons.

- published with permission; originally posted by Erik Apland at "Fresh Waters"

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