Capt. Phillip “P.J.” Steely knows the exact date he went to work for what is now Southern Devall Towing.
“September 8, 2006,” he said. “That’s when my life changed forever.”
Steely, 34, of Adamsville, Tenn., was still in his teens when Capt. David Renfro, his future father-in-law, suggested he consider a career on the river.
Renfro began working for Southern in 1998. “I just wanted my kids to make a good living,” he said.
Besides that, he said, of recommending a river career, “It’s the people you work for and the people you work with.”
Steely didn’t know about the possibilities of a river career before meeting Renfro.
He said of towboats, “I saw them going up and down the river, but I never thought anything about them.”
Renfro’s suggestion made Steely take a look, and what he saw appealed to him. It still does, 17 years later.
Steely signed on as a green deckhand and has spent his entire career with Southern. He is captain of the mv. Arne Christiansen, a 3,200-hp. Z-drive boat that travels the Lower Mississippi, Upper Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio and Arkansas rivers. He has ridden the boat for the last decade, as pilot, relief captain and now captain. Steely said he likes that the job is different every day, with even the same reaches of the river looking different at different stages.
Most of the crew has been together for years.
“On my boat it is family,” Steely stresses. “I have probably one of the best crews there is.”
That includes the engineer, who has been with him for a decade, a first mate he has ridden with two years, second and third mates who have been onboard a year and a relief captain with whom he previously worked on another vessel.
They make it a point, he said, to celebrate special occasions, meet in the wheelhouse to bless the food on holidays and to support each other personally as well as professionally.
Other friends in the industry have been a comfort, too. Steely pointed out port captain Michael Ditto, whom he called a brother.
“That man has been with me through thick and thin,” he said.
That includes April 2, 2011, the other date Steely remembers without having to think back at all. That’s the day his 2-year-old daughter, Traci, passed away from complications from acute myeloid leukemia.
Traci was a “Daddy’s girl” who loved the Paul Frank monkey, the color pink and “big boats.”
“She was the type of person who could put a smile on your face if you were having a bad day,” Steely said. “She was full of life.”
Steely still carries her pacifier in the bag he brings back and forth on hitches.
Steely wanted Traci to be a part of this article because he wants to make sure she is remembered.
He also wanted to be sure to include his wife, Candice, sons Hunter, 10, and Logan, 5, and daughters Hannah, 21, McKayla, 16, and McKenzie, 16.
Providing for them is one of the reasons a life on the river is worth it, even though leaving for a hitch is always hard, he said.
He also has a new reason: granddaughter Oakleigh, 5 months.
“They are my life,” he said. “All my kids are. They’re the main reason I do what I do.”
From a young teen, single and looking for a new direction to a settled, married man, father and now grandfather, the river has become not only a job or even a career for Steely but also a way of life.
“I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else because I love it so much: the people, the crew, the challenge,” he said.
Jonathan Jones, vice president of crewing at Southern Devall, praised Steely for the many positive qualities he sees in him.
“When you think about success and commitment at Southern Devall, it’s hard not to immediately consider P.J. and his crew, his family, on board the mv. Arne Christiansen,” he said. “The culture P.J. and his crew have built is something we should all strive for. From the wheelhouse, to the engineroom, to the deck, P.J. and his crew regularly sacrifice their time home to pass on their knowledge and experiences to the next generation of towboaters by conducting new hire orientations.
He summed up by saying, “Mentor, leader, captain: that’s P.J. Steely.”