A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Remembering Madison Berry, 29, on anniversary of his death; ‘riverlorian’ who loved river

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 is a part of a long and continuing story. This tribune first appeared a year ago.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Last week found me asking, “How much difference does a year, or so, make?”  Now I’m asking, “How much difference does a week make?” The answer was more than I wanted to know.

Madison Berry in uniform as a prestigious “Paducah Ambassador” after greeting the AMERICAN DUCHESS, background. (MB Self-Portrait.)

No sooner had I opened the computer for the morning, last Saturday, August 7, 2021, I stared dubiously in disbelief at the message popping from the page: “The bravest person I have ever known was my son, Madison Craig Berry. Unfortunately, today he passed from this world.” 

This can’t be happening, I thought, as the words of Beverly Craig, Madison’s mother, struck my heart like a stake forged of cold iron. Yet, despite the blow, I kept reading: “During his 29 years, he showed me how to overcome adversity, how to be happy and content with simple pleasures, how to enjoy life, how to be passionate about hobbies and interests, how to love, and how to laugh….” 

As I kept reading, a grieving mother’s emotions continued to spill from within the glare of the electronic monitor…. “While his life was not ordinary, it was extraordinary! He was unique, funny, persistent, devoted to family and friends, and tenacious. My world is less now that he has passed, but heaven is richer! I love you, Madison!”

Madison Berry and I never met personally. These days, however, relationships easily develop via the internet with Facebook, for example, replacing one-on-one contacts. Although I cannot recall the first time Madison and I exchanged greetings, we’d definitely been “Facebook Friends” since before the COVID Pandemic.

Only last month, sharp-eyed Madison first alerted me that the AMERICAN JAZZ grounded herself on the bottom of the Cumberland River. (Photo by Madison Berry.)

Madison was a young fellow who could be called a “riverboat buff,” or fan of the river; especially of those boats in the “two-legged trade” hauling paying passengers overnight. Only specially designed, inspected, and certified vessels are authorized to carry people while they sleep onboard; the best examples are, among others, the DELTA QUEEN, the AMERICAN QUEEN, AMERICAN DUTCHESS, COUNTESS, and EMPRESS of the American Queen Steamboat Company, and the QUEEN OF THE MISSISSIPPI and AMERICAN JAZZ of the American Cruise Lines.

Only last month, sharp-eyed Madison first alerted me that the AMERICAN JAZZ grounded herself on the bottom of the Cumberland River some 400-feet on the wrong side of the red buoy line while on a trip to Nashville, Tennessee. As I reported in my July 11th, 2021 column: “According to Madison Berry, my riverboat source in Paducah, Kentucky, the JAZZ has 122 passengers and 60 crewmen and women onboard.”

Earlier this year, Madison was honored to be selected as a prestigious “Paducah Ambassador.” The Ambassadors, also known as the “Red Coats,” are local volunteers who give their time, energy, and knowledge in welcoming visitors and greeting guests at special events, including all the landings of the passenger boats landing at the Paducah riverfront. When asked how he liked being an Ambassador for his hometown, Madison volunteered, “I’m so in love with my job. Being a Paducah Ambassador is so much fun. Sometimes we are invited to have lunch aboard the boats when they are visiting. It’s the best job I ever had.” 

Madison’s last post on FaceBook were two photos he snapped on Tuesday, August 3rd of the AMERICAN JAZZ at Paducah, and added, “AMERICAN JAZZ this morning docked at Paducah. They are heading for Nashville – I hope they don’t get stuck like last time. [There are] 141 souls on board. She is on the Ohio River, but will take Kentucky Lake to Lake Barkley (on the Cumberland)”

 “The river will never be the same without our friend Madison Berry. He was the BIGGEST Steamboat fan I have ever met.” Chief Ricky Idlett. (R. Idlett Photo)

Or, as I stated earlier in my 14th of March 2021 edition, “Madison Berry, a young riverboat buff from Paducah, Kentucky, at the lower end of the Ohio River, always seems to have the latest scoop on what all the riverboat operations are proposing. Besides, he is easier to contact than the chief executive officer of a major cruising enterprise.”

Apparently, I wasn’t the only friend of Madison’s who was shocked and saddened when Beverly informed the world of her son’s tragic demise. Besides the many personal friends of the family, Madison’s river pals expressed their feelings, too, at the loss they suffered.

Sean Koepke in St. Louis wrote: “Don, I saw your conversations with Madison! What a shock, wasn’t it? Gonna miss hearing from him about the boats.”

Arlene Brridges, the former assistant and confidant to the VP & GM of the original Delta Queen Steamboat Company: “I will miss Madison’s steamboat postings. He was informative and took a good picture. Sincerest sympathy to his family.”

Chief Engineer Ricky Idlett of the AMERICAN QUEEN expressed his sentiments: “The river will never be the same without our friend Madison Berry. He was the BIGGEST Steamboat fan I have ever met. RIP, my friend.”

Jo Ann Schoen, premier DELTA QUEEN advocate while aboard the CELEBRATION BELLE in Moline, IL, announced: “My heart is so heavy with the news of the passing of riverboat enthusiast Madison Berry. He will be missed greatly by his many river friends. Today’s lunch cruise on the BELLE will be in his memory.”

Jonathan E. Hartford Sanders added: “I didn’t know Madison, but I heard you talk about him a lot. I thought it was interesting that despite being a layman in the riverboat industry, he was so connected that even career river persons were coming to him for news and information. Madison was a true Riverlorian.”

Carrie Cloat Stier, owner and operator of the Riverboat TWILIGHT in Dubuque, Iowa: “The Riverboat TWILIGHT sends out a special tribute to a true riverboat fan, Madison Berry, who passed away yesterday at the early age of 29.  We will see you upriver ‘on the two,’ Madison.”

Not long after Madison and I became riverboat buddies, I realized that he was an artist through his photography. He possessed an innate talent for composition, light, and form. Little did I realize at the time, he had taken art lessons and painted pictures of, but, what else… steamboats. His favorite subject was, not surprisingly, the DELTA QUEEN. One artwork he painted portrayed the QUEEN as she looked while moored at Chattanooga on the Tennessee River.

One artwork Madison painted portrayed the QUEEN as she looked while moored at Chattanooga on the Tennessee River.

After a critic told Berry he had a “good eye” for crafting photographs, Madison countered by saying, “Maybe, one day, if I save up, I can do another cruise on the AMERICAN QUEEN, but it would take me five years.” While wondering how he could generate a cash flow to begin saving for an expensive steamboat trip, someone advised: “Start your own business. Try steamboat and river photographs, for starters… get your photos together and put them in book form. Then, start making money for a cruise through the sale of your books.”

Certain ones on the river, including myself, had as much confidence in Madison’s ability that we believed his artistic riverboat photos were marketable to a select audience. 

Madison and I seemed to share a habit of staying up late on the internet, so I was never surprised whenever a note from him appeared in my message box at any time of night. Usually, he was informing me about the next time a riverboat was scheduled to arrive in Paducah, or he might be breaking down the expenses of the cost for a trip taken on one boat or another. So at 2:17 AM, Monday, the Second of August, long past the time I should have turned in, Madison forwarded an internet link to a spiritual-style tune  featured on YouTube entitled “Everyone Will Be Happy Over There” as recorded by a group called “The Horizon Family.”

As I was tired and still finishing up something else, I ignored the link, though my young friend attached these comments: “Omg… I haven’t heard this in years. I use to have a tape of them. I would listen to them 24/7, just about. It’s my favorite…”

After Madison and I became riverboat buddies, I realized that he was an artist through his photography. (Photo by Madison Berry.)

For the rest of the days following the initial shock of hearing that Madison died unexpectedly on Friday, August 6th, possibly of heart complications, I failed to give the musical link another thought until after he was laid to rest on Wednesday, the 11th. By that evening, however, while wondering how his funeral transpired, I put on my headphones, opened the link to what Madison described as his “favorite” tune, and harkened attentively as the happy, hand-clapping spiritual began:

There’s a happy land of promise
Over in the great beyond
Where the saved of earth shall soon the glory share
Where the souls of men shall enter
And live on forevermore
Everybody will be happy over there…

As I listened, I imagined Madison playing his favorite tune over and over again… and after I listened to the recording for the third time,  I had to confess… Madison’s “favorite tune” was exactly perfect for this moment.

Everybody will be happy, Will be happy, Over, over there
We will shout and sing His praises through the never-ending ages
We will shout and sing His praise
Everybody will be happy over there…
(Author: E. M. Bartlett, 1921)

No place Madison would rather be than on the river aboard a fine boat, (Photo by Beverly Craig.)

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. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Thank you Capt Don , for such a glowing tribute to our young friend. I can’t believe it’s been a year! Sometimes it seems like yesterday & other days it feels like forever. When I see pictures & postings from Paducah,I think ” Oh Madison would’ve loved that!” Or when one of the “Buffs” posts having trouble tracking a boat ,” I bet Madison would have her honed in!”. Thanks for sharing his hymn . It’s very appropriate.
    Prayers to Beverly & all Madison’s family & friends on a very hard anniversary.

  2. Jo Ann Schoen says:

    I have thought about Madison all week, knowing the anniversary of his passing was when I was on the CELEBRATION BELLE in early August. He and I also had late night exchanges. The last one we had was when he sent me the same message about the possibility of the AMERICAN JAZZ might get grounded up the Cumberland River. With my usual distaste for any ACL boat, I countered back “I hope she does”. Madison came right back and said “but I hope know one will be hurt”. Yes, he is greatly missed. I think a memorial plaque on the Paducah waterfront is an excellent idea. Thanks so much for the fine tribute to him today.

  3. Michael Gore says:

    Please accept my condolences on the passing “over the bar” of this special friend and river soul. As in the title and words of another old hymn, “Let the Lower Lights be Burning”, Madison’s life lights for all to see were surely in range-alignment with that “Upper Light”! Thank you for sharing the words to that grand old Gospel song, “Everybody Will Be Happy Over There”. It brings to mind and heart another Gospel song: “That Glad Reunion Day”. May it be so for Madison and all his beloved!

  4. Beverly craig says:

    Thank you Don for re-printing this article about Madison. You write eloquently about my Madison! All of your words touch my heart! For being Madison’s friend, you have my lasting gratitude. Beverly, Madison’s mom

  5. Mike Washenko says:

    What a great tribute article, let’s get the ball rolling on that plack.

  6. Connie Bays says:

    While I tend to read more than I ever comment, there are some whose posts are most memorable to me whether I comment that or not. Madison was one of those who I noticed the most. He had a way of grabbing your attention and never letting go. I always enjoyed his posts, comments and pictures. It’s so very sad that his time here with us was so short, but it continues to be very memorable, and I’m quite sure that he is happy over there.

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