Jesse Calhoon

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, October 30, 2013

OBITS_Calhoon, Jesse_WEB2


Jesse Calhoon

April 4, 1923 – Oct. 22, 2013


Labor Leader Sails Into Sunset

The Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (M.E.B.A.) , AFL-CIO, is sad to announce that Jesse M. Calhoon, the M.E.B.A.’s longest serving and charismatic President who is widely credited with ushering the Union into the modern era, died on Tuesday October 22. He was 90 years old.

Jesse served the M.E.B.A. as a powerful and visionary leader, and a tough negotiator who employers viewed as a formidable but trustworthy adversary. His dynamic service as M.E.B.A.’s President and Chairman of the Board of Trustees spanned over 20 years and six U.S. Presidencies. His 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.

“Jesse Calhoon was an exemplary individual, a great labor leader and a true visionary for the U.S. Merchant Marine when it needed it the most. He was also brave. Jesse served our country and our Union well in peace and war,” said Mike Jewell, M.E.B.A.’s current President. “With his final sailing, I am reminded how much he contributed and how great the debt we owe to those who sailed before us. Jesse Calhoon is the standard by which all of us should measure our work on behalf of the Union and our industry.”

Jesse was born in Belhaven, North Carolina, on April 4, 1923 into a farming family that supplemented their income by fishing. He first went to sea as a coal passer in Norfolk, VA at the age of 18. He shipped out as a wiper, fireman and then oiler and sailed in many convoys in support of the allied effort to defeat Hitler in World War II. During the war, he made numerous voyages shuttling 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 and sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.

By 1949, Jesse had worked his way up to Chief Engineer. In 1954, Jesse began his climb up the political ladder in M.E.B.A., eventually being elected to its top rung as President. A hallmark of the Calhoon era was his ability to transform the Union’s pension plan into a healthy and fully-funded retirement fund for hardworking M.E.B.A. members when their wrench-turning days were done. Throughout Jesse’s presidency, he used his political savvy coupled with shrewd, hard-nosed, negotiating to win unprecedented gains for his members and safeguard American maritime jobs at large. Jesse was true to his word and once a deal was struck, those on the other side knew they had an ally for the duration of the contract.

Jesse’s accomplishments in the M.E.B.A. and the labor community at large were vast and far-reaching. In the mid-1960s, with a high membership withdrawal rate and a shortage of maritime manpower as the nation headed into the Vietnam War, Calhoon formed a Union-run apprenticeship program, Operation LEAP (Licensed Engineer Apprentice Program). The program quickly expanded into a full cadet school. To this day, the Calhoon Marine Engineering School offers the finest continuing education for maritime officers. “As a third generation M.E.B.A. member and a Calhoon M.E.B.A. Engineering school graduate, Jesse Calhoon had a profound influence on my life,” said M.E.B.A.’s Secretary-Treasurer, Bill Van Loo. “He was an icon of the industry. His presence commanded respect.”

Jesse also flexed his power in national politics.  He proved decisive in the formation and successful passage of Richard Nixon’s Merchant Marine Act of 1970 which provided for the construction of hundreds of U.S.-flag ships over the next decade. He played a vital role in opening up the U.S. wheat market to the Soviet Union and later served on President Reagan’s Export Council. 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. He also vigorously fought for legislation which protected thousands of U.S. mariner jobs and ensured the continued viability of the U.S. maritime industry.

OBITS_Calhoon_MEBA_logoAfter retiring from his leadership with M.E.B.A., Jesse spent his retirement and final years in Naples, Florida. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Shirley Brady Calhoon, who died in 1964 and his second wife Jean Nolan Calhoon who died in 2005. He is survived by four children: Richard Earl (Dorothy) Calhoon, Tamara Kay (Hutch) Hutchinson, Ronald Lee (Susanne) Calhoon, and Curtis Sean (Heather) Calhoon; and four grandchildren, Jessica Lee Calhoon, Alexander Jackson Calhoon, Shane Nolan Calhoon, and Logan Connolly Calhoon, as well as extended family and many friends and admirers. A ceremony to honor his memory is planned for Saturday, November 2, 2013 at 2:00 PM at the Fuller Funeral Home Chapel on Pine Ridge Road in Naples.  Please visit for online condolences and details. Half of his ashes will be buried with his beloved wife Jean in Naples and half will be scattered in the North Atlantic from a M.E.B.A. ship after being on display at M.E.B.A. headquarters in Washington, D.C. and at the C.M.E.S. in Easton, MD. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial donations to be made to the M.E.B.A. Merchant Marine Memorial Foundation at

The flags at the Calhoon School, atop M.E.B.A. headquarters and union halls will be flown at half-staff. Two U.S. flags will be raised at half-staff on the U.S. Capitol Building. The flags will be presented to the Calhoon family and to M.E.B.A. On November 9, 2013, at 2 PM, C.M.E.S. and M.E.B.A. will be holding a memorial service at the school in Easton, MD.