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The River School Celebrates 50 Years Of Training And Forming Inland Mariners

The River School, one of the oldest and most respected names in maritime education, will mark a milestone this month as it celebrates 50 years of training inland mariners. This anniversary will be celebrated at a January 29 dinner—along with its transition to a new owner. Keith Alexander has been a longtime instructor at the school and, like Bill Kline, the former owner, is a retired career Coast Guard veteran. 

In his 21-year Coast Guard career, Alexander wore many hats, spending much of his time in law enforcement roles. He served a search-and-rescue tour of duty in the North Atlantic and also served as executive petty officer on the river buoy tender Wedge, which maintained buoys and aids to navigation all along the 954-mile length of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway system, all the way down to Mobile Bay. “We covered the Tenn-Tom and Black Warrior River,” he said.In 2008, Alexander retired from the Coast Guard. After a brief stint teaching boat safety to law enforcement and firefighting personnel at the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), he joined The River School. 

That wasn’t his first association with the school, however. “I was a student first,” he said, studying at the school for a radar certification in 2000. Alexander didn’t foresee taking up the helm of the school. But at the same time, he said, “It’s a calling; I was meant to do this. Someone has to carry the torch.” When the opportunity arose, he and his wife, Terri, prayed over it. “She backed me up 100 percent.”

The initial impetus for The River School came in 1972, when Congress passed an act requiring licenses for operators of uninspected towing vessels.

“In the postwar period, the seafarers’ unions originally wanted all ratings of towboat crews to be required to have licenses as part of those [inland] vessels being inspected,” Kline explained. “That would have made their recruiting and organizing easier. In 1972, the licensing requirement came in for wheelmen, but the transition to ‘inspected’ status didn’t happen for a long time”—in fact, it happened only with the passage of legislation in 2004 that gave birth to Subchapter M.

When the licensing act was passed, a lot of river mariners were grandfathered in—that is, their experience plus an open-book test enabled them to earn their captain’s licenses. But for new people coming in, more education was required than in the past. “The River School’s early business was helping mariners who needed more academic type of study to pass the licensing exams,” Kline said.

Kline himself became involved with the school in 1995, when as a result of the investigation into the Amtrak Sunset Limited accident, the Coast Guard imposed radar training requirements for towboat operators. He (and two partners in another venture) originally helped the school on a contract basis. Then, two years later, one of the school’s founders, Betty Hutto, retired, and Kline found himself part owner. “There were originally four of us,” he said, “but the others gradually retired, leaving me the last one standing.”

At one time, The River School’s headquarters was in Helena, Ark. Then it moved to Memphis (with branches in several locations), and since 2020 it has been headquartered in Olive Branch, Miss. Instructors also take its courses on the road, renting hotels and holding classes in the conference rooms. All the equipment it uses is portable. The school hopes to soon set up new training facilities in South Carolina and Vicksburg, Miss., according to Alexander, who said, “We’re gonna be busy.” The school hopes to expand its course offerings, too, beyond its popular courses in licensing, radar certification and tankerman training, to include courses in fire safety, Subchapter M, auditing and water survival. 

Both men are bullish on the future of the inland waterways and the school. “The need is out there in our brown-water world,” Alexander said. “Right now, an entire generation of older mariners is retiring and passing the torch on to a new generation. Thousands of River School graduates are already working the rivers.” 

Despite the COVID pandemic, the school has seen steady licensing, radar and tankerman classes, Alexander said. The River School’s word-of-mouth reputation is upheld by close attention and a high level of personal service. The familiarity of both Kline and Alexander with the ins and outs of Coast Guard application procedures has served the school in good stead. “We handle all paperwork and applications,” Alexander said. “It’s a turn-key service.”

“The industry is expanding,” added Alexander, “and we want to be leading the way. The jobs are there. Every maritime company is hiring.”