A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: For a kid with a fascination for the river, having best possible teachers made the difference

The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

“When your work is your pleasure, you’re the happiest person in the world.” Captain C. S. “Rip” Ware

All it takes, quite often, is a word of encouragement from an experienced person such as steamboat and towboat Master Pilot, Captain Rip Ware, to make a person feel good about themselves and their work. Having someone to look up to, especially if they are inspiring and supportive, can mean all the difference to a young person seeking to make a career of a profession he, or she, loves. Such a person is often called a “mentor” or an experienced and trusted advisor. As a youngster starting on what would become a long career on the river, two exceptional mentors expressed an interest in me.

“When your work is your pleasure, you’re the happiest person in the world.” Captain C. S. -“Rip” Ware

My dad, Lt. Col. Jess Sanders, Jr., was in charge of the Traffic Division for the Covington Police Department, across the river from Cincinnati. In those days before the interstate highways, all the autoworkers returned to their homes, down south, on the weekends traveled US 25 from Detriot to Jellico, Tennessee. On Friday nights, the bridge from Cincinnati to Covington was a terrible bottleneck. Dad and his men set aside a small section of the Bridge Cafe and Liquor parking lot, facing the oncoming southbound bridge traffic, as their rallying point. From there, the traffic officers directed the onrush of motorists hurrying to get home for a short visit with their families before reversing their paths on Sunday.

In charge of the liquor store was a skinny, older man named Walter Hoffmeier. “Walt,” as he preferred, was born on a shantyboat on the Licking River soon after the 20th Century. Walt also owned an all-wooden, 52-foot houseboat named the PAL-O-MINE. It wasn’t long before Walt invited Mom, Dad, the other traffic cops, and their wives for a Saturday evening cruise aboard the PAL. Strangely-enough, at my age then, just ten, I’d been terrified of the river since my very earliest years.

My dad, Lt. Col. Jess Sanders, Jr., was in charge of the Traffic Division, Also, Motorcycle Patrolmen Abe Lindsay and Elmer Schmidt with Dickie Sanders.

So when my folks weren’t back from the boat by midnight, terror overcame me until they arrived home safely. The next weekend, however, Walter invited my folks again aboard the PAL-O-MINE, but this time, my two brothers, Dick and Bob, and I were on the invitation list, too.

Instead of being afraid of the river and the PAL, immediately, an overwhelming affection for them both came over me. I knew I was where I belonged. Though I was just ten years of age and the oldest son of working parents, I already had a strong work ethic from helping around the house while keeping an eye on my younger brothers. My eagerness to work, I discovered, would soon attract Walt’s attention, for he was anxious to have an extra helping hand around his boat, even one as young as me.

Walter was a no-nonsense man when it came to children. He certainly wasn’t interested in babysitting kids or tolerating ones who didn’t behave aboard his vessel. Quickly, he welcomed my help around the PAL, where I was eager to do any chore I could handle.

Walter Hoffmeier, “Walt,” as he preferred, seen with his wife Lorraine, was born on a shantyboat on the Licking River.

As I got older, the complexity of jobs increased. Within a couple of years, Walt had me steering the PAL on rides while he entertained his friends, but still, he made all the departures of the large houseboat. When in my early teens, I helped prepare and paint the bottom of the PAL when the boat was “on the hard” in drydock. The sweet smell of tarred oakum caulking is one I will never forget.

My parents, Jess and Marge, realizing what excellent fun boating was for the family, bought a paddlewheel houseboat they named for themselves, the MARJESS. Within another year, Walter started his own “boat harbor,” usually called “marinas” these days. My dad, being a police officer, was more than strict with me and outlawed my frequenting the usual high school hangouts. But the one place Dad allowed me to spend as much time as possible was at “Walt’s Boat Club,” at Mile 471.3 on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, where I couldn’t have been a happier lad.

Walt owned an all-wooden, 52-foot houseboat named the PAL-O-MINE.

There was no goofing-off on the river around Walt. He expected a day’s work out of me, although I was only 14 or 15 years old. What I didn’t understand, he was willing to teach. One of my first jobs was learning to master the art of holding the beam from a flashlight correctly on something he or his brother Huck was repairing. Another was pulling nails out of a truckload of old lumber and saving both the boards and the nails for when it came time to built floats to moor small boats along. 

Walt taught me how to make mechanical repairs, basic carpentry, the proper way to handle a paintbrush, and many other different skills to keep the boat harbor operating and looking good. Every night at the end of the 11 pm news, the weatherman gave the river forecast more detailed than they are these days. With this information, we knew whether the river was going to rise, fall, or stay stationary and if the harbor fleet, nearing 1,000 feet of docks, needed to be shoved out, pulled closer ashore, or left alone. Huck and I performed the task as necessary, as Walt had a heart condition that kept him from such strenuous jobs.

I continued working with Walt until I finished high school and started decking on the Steamer AVALON at age 17.

By the time Huck and I had the harbor ready for the conditions forecast for the river, it was nearly midnight, and I had high school classes, yet, the next morning. On Friday and Saturday nights, I often stayed overnight in the headboat sleeping on chairs placed together for a crude bed.

Once I bravely asked Walt how much he would pay me, and with a stern look and a snarl, he answered, “Pay ya’? Yer gettin’ yer supper ain’t ya’?” I immediately knew to keep quiet if I expected to continue helping around the boat harbor. Or, like another friend later explained, “Never expect to be paid while getting your education.”

I continued working with Walt until I finished high school and started decking on the Steamer AVALON, now the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, at age 17. It didn’t take long for Captain Ernest E. Wagner, Master of the steamboat, to see that I was a youngster with better-than-average work habits, knowledge of the necessary river, and mechanical skills, and a willingness to learn. Before long, Captain Wagner was asking for me whenever he needed someone for a unique project in addition to my regular duties. I worked aboard the AVALON for Cap’n Wagner for two summers while attending college.

My proudest moment on the river was the day I signed the enrollment papers at the Cincinnati Coast Guard office and became the Alternate Master of the DELTA QUEEN with my mentor, Big Cap.

After college graduation, I served on the famous DELTA QUEEN for “Big Cap,” as his friends often called him, until I went into the military for just over four years. After my discharge, I returned to the QUEEN, where, within six months of training with Captain Wagner, I received my U. S. Coast Guard license for “Inland Mate of All Gross Tons,” and served as second-in-command of the DELTA QUEEN while I was still in my late twenties. By the time I was 30, my proudest moment on the river had become the day I signed the enrollment papers at the Cincinnati Coast Guard office and became the Alternate Master of the DELTA QUEEN with my mentor, Big Cap.

My blessings, career-wise on the river, were having a couple of mentors who took a personal interest and motivated me to excel in the career field that I loved the most. Many years later, I summarized what those early days with Walt and Captain Wagner meant: 

“Walter Hoffmeier had a decisive influence on a kid who’d never been much good at anything in particular until he met that skinny, hard-cussing, taskmaster who taught him carpentry, painting, and river skills.  Most of all, he taught a boy what was expected of a man if he wanted to hold onto a job though the wages paid were an evening’s supper and the opportunity to be on the river.” Captain Ernest E. Wagner merely continued the education that Walter started seven years earlier.

Indeed, I was blessed by having these two great teachers.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.  

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  1. Pete OConnell says:

    A great memory and read Captain.
    The tales shared although not exactly alike does remind me of two guys that shaped or should I say steered me to a license.
    Keep them coming …..
    Thank you.

  2. Ronald Sutton says:

    Great! Mentors, two, Chief Engineers in particular, helped me along, pushing my skills beyond what I thought were my capabilities, farther than just the Engine Room, but the Entire Ship. They are Rare, but Influential beyond counting, perhaps not realized at the time.. Great Article, Capt. Don.

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