In 2016 Captain Cletus Henderson headed up the crew of the M/V Jeff Montgomery, part of the Old River fleet. He is also a U.S. Coast Guard-certified training instructor. His journey to this position is perhaps typical of other Kirby mariners, who come from all parts of the country, who may have been in the armed services, who sometimes tried other careers before coming to Kirby, and who came through the Kirby Training Program.
Henderson was born and grew up in Missouri where, as a boy, he watched barge and towboat crews on local rivers. He said that they always looked like they were having fun. He graduated from high school and joined the Army, where for five years he was a lifting and loading specialist. After the Army, Henderson moved to Kansas City, Missouri, worked in construction, and stayed in shape lifting weights at a local gym. The construction industry there paid well in the summer when there was plenty of work, but in the winter most construction ceased because of the freezing weather. He and his wife had two little girls, and both felt the uncertain paychecks were a detriment to the family. So they moved to Corpus Christi in 1997, where he planned to open his own gym. Henderson quickly determined that this was a bad idea. “Corpus had a gym on every corner,” he said, and he had not foreseen the complicated insurance issues. His next move was to go to a job fair, where he interviewed with a recruiter for Dixie Carriers. Once he was offered a job, he never looked back. He and his family were able to return to Kansas City to live near their relatives because, as he pointed out in describing the many Kirby advantages, Kirby mariners can live anywhere they chose.
Henderson came up through the Kirby Training Program, beginning as a deckhand in 1997 and becoming a captain in five years. In conversation he repeated more than once that Kirby promotes from within and even pushes its employees to move up. “The sky’s the limit. If you work hard and get the education, you can rise as high as you want to go. You could run the company!” But his top praise for Kirby and his job went to his schedule. He works twenty days on and ten days off, which is time he gets to totally focus on his family. He never wanted to be a weekend dad, he said, and because of these stretches off, he believed he had the opportunity to be a better parent. He proudly added that his kids have been to every theme park and child-oriented vacation spot in the U.S., something he could not have taken time to do in a regular five-day-a-week, nine-to-five job. He has been able to provide his children with opportunities he did not have as a child himself.
“The next best thing about a job on the water at Kirby,” he said, “is that you make enough money to enjoy that time off you have.” Currently a level-4 tankerman makes in the $90,000 range, and pay goes up from there depending on length of service and time spent working. Kirby also gives generous bonuses based on job level and performance. Henderson noted with some sense of awe that he has never heard of another company that holds its employees’ hands the way Kirby does. “They want you to succeed and be promoted, and they give you the tools both in training and top-notch equipment to do that.” He added that one other real plus to working at Kirby was its pension plan. When he retires in his mid-sixties, Henderson anticipates that he will have accumulated enough in his Kirby pension plan and his 401-K accounts to receive approximately 90% of his salary at retirement.
Henderson is currently the captain of one of Kirby’s newest towboats, the M/V Brady Dawson, which is the fourth boat he has captained at Kirby. Prior to that, he was the captain of the M/V Jeff Montgomery for five years.