Jesse Calhoon, longtime maritime labor leader, dies at 90

Gi 139247 Calhoon Nixon

The following is the text of a news release from the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association:

(WASHINGTON) — Jesse M. Calhoon, M.E.B.A.’s longest-serving president who is widely credited with ushering the union into the modern era, died on Oct. 22. He was 90 years old.  
A powerful and visionary leader, he was a tough negotiator and the employers viewed him as a formidable adversary. His dynamic service as M.E.B.A.’s top executive and Chairman of the Board of Trustees spanned over 20 years and six U.S. Presidencies. Jesse’s energy for the job allowed him to maximize his influence within the industry and on Capitol Hill. Wages and benefits for members rose dramatically during his tenure. With scores of accomplishments during over 40 years with the M.E.B.A., he racked up many gains for the Union that we continue to build upon today and the legacy he left looms large.
The son of a fisherman, Jesse was born in Belhaven, North Carolina, on April 4, 1923. He first went to sea as a coal passer in Norfolk, VA in 1939 at the age of 16. He joined up with the National Maritime Union and shipped out as a fireman and then oiler before sailing in convoys in support of the allied effort to defeat Hitler in World War II. During the war he made numerous voyages on the harrowing Murmansk run and helped shuttle supply ships through dangerous waters including during the invasions of North Africa and Sicily. On one mission he cheated death when his ship was torpedoed in the Gulf of Mexico.
Jesse graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Officer Candidate School in New London, Connecticut in 1943. By February of the next year he had earned his third engineer’s license – and a month before his 21st birthday he joined the nation’s oldest and finest maritime union and suited up for the first time in M.E.B.A. blue and gold. He continued to serve on a variety of vessels and delivered military cargo until the end of the war. Jesse sailed on ships across the globe over the next decade with a break around 1947 when he served as a refrigeration engineering instructor in Shanghai, China for the Chung Shing Coal Mining Company. By 1949, he had worked his way up to Chief Engineer.
In 1954, the politically astute Calhoon began his ascension within the ranks. Starting out at Norfolk Local 11 he became Business Manager. In 1959 he was elected National M.E.B.A. Secretary-Treasurer on the Edwin Altman ticket. However, in an unexpected twist, Altman went on a leave of absence shortly after his election in order to work on the Presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. Altman never returned to his post and became the Vice President of West Coast Airlines in 1962. Calhoon took over as the acting M.E.B.A. President during those years and, at a Special Convention, was tapped to fill the unexpired term At the next regular election in 1965, Jesse was easily elected to a full term as the Union’s President with Charlie Black taking over as Secretary-Treasurer.
While he was a student of history, Calhoon always had an eye on the future. The confining organizational structure of the M.E.B.A. that had been fine for the early 20th century became increasingly unwieldy with the dawn of the 1960s. Jesse helped sculpt the overhaul of the local system and its conversion into three main districts – the Atlantic & Gulf District, the Pacific Coast District, and the Rivers & Great Lakes District. In 1968, he oversaw the merger of those districts into a single all-coast unit and the Union became District No. 1-PCD, M.E.B.A.  
In the mid-1960s, with a dire shortage of maritime manpower as the country became mired in Vietnam, Calhoon took the lead in kick starting M.E.B.A.’s own cadet school which took root first at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore then at the old Southern Hotel on 9 Light Street under the Directorship of Roy Luebbe. In October 1968, the Calhoon M.E.B.A. Engineering School’s first class of 19 engineers graduated and began their sailing careers with the Union. Ultimately the cadet program wound down and the School moved to Easton, MD in the early 1980s where it still provides the finest continuing education for maritime officers in the facility that bears the Calhoon name.
Another hallmark of the Calhoon era was his relentless groundwork to cement a hearty, full-funded pension plan for hardworking M.E.B.A. members when their wrench-turning days were done. He succeeded handsomely and his work transformed M.E.B.A.’s pension plan into the best in the maritime industry which continues to be the case today.  
With many shipping companies based in New York City, M.E.B.A. Headquarters had been located in Manhattan at Battery Park for years. But as time went on and the dynamics of shipping began to shift, it became apparent to Jesse that the nation’s capital would be a more strategic fit for the Union’s seat of power. He battled against skeptical employer trustees and spearheaded the M.E.B.A. Pension Plan’s purchase of the “Hall of the States” building – located between Washington’s Union Station and the U.S. Capitol – for $30 million in late 1976. Headquarters staff and officials moved into the building in the summer of 1977. 35 years later the building, which still serves as M.E.B.A. HQ, was assessed at over ten times that amount and the property continues to provide a robust annual return.
Jesse proved decisive in the formation and successful passage of Richard Nixon’s Merchant Marine Act of 1970 and he was captured in a memorable photo as Nixon signed the landmark bill into law. The Act provided for the construction of hundreds of U.S.-flag ships over the next decade. Jesse’s presence in the Oval Office was not uncommon and his influence in Washington provided a megaphone for the maritime industry in the highest halls of power. Throughout Jesse’s presidency, he used his political savvy coupled with shrewd negotiating to win unprecedented gains for his members and safeguard American maritime jobs at large.
Though M.E.B.A. employers had to face off with the hard-nosed, ferocious negotiating of Jesse Calhoon on the other side of the bargaining table, the companies understood that once a deal was hammered out they had a rock-solid ally for the duration of the agreement. Jesse was a person who was to true to his word.
Jesse Calhoon retired as District No. 1 President in late 1984 and remained National M.E.B.A. President until October of 1985.  
He spent his final years in Naples, Florida. Jesse joins his beloved wife Jean in death and leaves behind two sons, extended family and many friends and admirers. Initial plans were that half of Jesse’s ashes will be buried with his wife and half would be scattered in the Atlantic Ocean.  A ceremony to honor his memory are in the works.
The M.E.B.A. flags at the Calhoon School, atop Headquarters and at the Union halls are flying at half-staff. In addition two U.S. flags will be raised at half-staff on the U.S. Capitol in Jesse’s honor. The flags will later be presented to the Calhoon family and to the M.E.B.A.
We’d like to hear your stories and reflections about M.E.B.A. patriarch Jesse Calhoon. Please e-mail them to

By Professional Mariner Staff