Maritime labor is mourning the loss of an American original. Jesse Calhoon, the longest serving president of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA), passed away October 22. He was 90 years old.
“Jesse Calhoon was one of a kind,” said MTD President Michael Sacco. “The maritime industry has lost a truly remarkable figure who fought hard for his membership.”
Born into a farming family in Belhaven, NC, on April 4, 1923, Calhoun was exposed to the maritime industry at an early age as members of his family supplemented their incomes by working in the fishing industry.
He entered the U.S. merchant marine in 1939, just before the start of World War II, joining the National Maritime Union. During the war effort, he made numerous voyages on the Murmansk run. He was aboard ships during the invasions of North Africa and Sicily and survived when one of the vessels upon which he sailed was torpedoed in the Gulf of Mexico.
Calhoon had started out as a coal passer and worked his way up the fo’c’sle to obtain a license and join MEBA. By 1949, he had attained the rank of Chief Engineer. He came ashore for the union in 1954. He worked his way up the ladder, was elected secretary-treasurer in 1959, then became acting president in 1962. He was formally elected MEBA president at convention in 1965 and served until retiring in 1985.
Often described as being tough, colorful and wily, he was best-known for his sharp negotiating skills. In announcing that he had passed away, the union he had headed for so many years called him “the founder of modern MEBA” whose accomplishments included building a world-class pension plan and a training facility in eastern Maryland that eventually bore his name.
As the head of MEBA, he helped the union ensure a steady supply of officers during the Vietnam War. He served on the MTD Executive Board.