When Johnny Holt and his wife, Connie, got married in December 1986, he was a painter and she was studying to be a nurse. They’d been sweethearts since they were 17 and 15, respectively. Not long into their marriage, Holt’s father-in-law, Parker Towing Company captain Bill Archie, suggested he hang up his paint equipment and try working on a towboat.
“My wife’s stepdad is a captain on one of the boats, the Heloise, and he talked me into coming out here,” Holt said. “He got to talking to me about it. He really told me a story. He said it was easy work.”
Holt recalled another thing Archie told him about life on a towboat: “He said ‘You’re either gonna love it or hate it,’ and I love what I do.”
Soon, Holt joined Archie at Parker Towing Company.
“I came out here in 1988 decking, and I didn’t even know what a towboat was,” he said.
His first day was July 15, 1988, and he worked as a deckhand aboard the company’s original mv. Alice Parker. For the young painter-turned-mariner, it was a tough first day.
“I started to let it go,” Holt said. “I fell in the river trying to catch a line, and the wheel wash sent me downriver.”
But Holt stuck with it, in large part because of his willingness to learn and work hard, both qualities he learned from his father. Holt credited his father with not just modeling hard work but teaching it to him personally as well.
“When I was a kid, whether my daddy was working in the yard or on cars, I was right there with him,” Holt said.
His father taught him another thing about work: When you find a company and a job you like, stay committed to it.
“That’s how I was raised,” Holt said. “You get with a company you like, and you stick with them. You cannot beat the Parkers. I’ve worked with them all these years, and you just can’t beat them.”
Holt worked aboard Parker vessels until October 1989, when he went to work as a welder for the company. Then, around 1996, Holt moved to the engineering department, where he added mechanic work to his welding and repair duties. About six or seven years ago, Holt was promoted to senior port engineer. In that role, Holt directly oversees about a dozen vessel engineers while working alongside the company’s two other port engineers.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I hardly ever slow down.”
Holt made no bones about it: “It’s not an easy job.” But he said he’s always been inclined to work hard and work with his hands. He said he enjoys the troubleshooting and problem-solving involved with maintaining the big engines that power the company’s towboats.
“I’m happier out of my office and under an engine than I am sitting in my office at the computer,” he said.
More than that, Holt understands the work he and the other engineers do to keep Parker Towing’s vessels on the move is vitally important to the success of the company.
“That boat doesn’t make money sitting still,” he said. “And my job is to keep that boat running.”
Holt said he has seen some changes over the years come about as it relates to the maritime industry and the engineroom in particular. Gone are the days of a purely mechanical machine propelling towboats through the nation’s inland waterways, he said.
“Ten years ago, everything I worked on was mechanical,” he said. “Now, everything’s electronic. A lot of times, you have to have a computer to tell you what’s wrong with an engine.”
And with that has come a reliance of the up-and-coming engineers on technology, Holt said.
“But you still have to troubleshoot most engines yourself,” he added. “You have to be mechanically inclined.”
Holt said it’s also imperative that engineers be willing to learn and to commit themselves to an operation that’s on the move around the clock, seven days a week.
“You just have to stick with it, work hard, and you’ll be rewarded in the end,” he said.
Holt has a good example of that in Archie, who is 75 years old and still captaining the Heloise.
“They just renewed his license,” Holt said. “He said, if they renew it when he turns 80, he’s going to stay on ’til he’s 85.”
Holt also has enjoyed the support from Connie, his wife of 34 years who also had a career change early in their marriage. Now a manager in retail, Connie has always supported Holt in his endeavors with Parker Towing, despite the long days and nights and the need to be on call.
“She’s been right there with me the whole time,” Holt said. “She knows my job, and she’s OK with it.”