Thomas George packed a lot of life into his brief 56 years with us. The former Memphis District employee passed away April 5 doing one of the many things he loved – being close to the river.
Thomas was Master of the Corps’ Dredge Potter based in the St. Louis District. He died in his sleep aboard the dredge which was at Ensley Engineer Yard in Memphis for maintenance work.
Before assuming his duties as Master of the Potter, Thomas worked in the Memphis District aboard the Dredge Burgess, Dredge Hurley and Motor Vessel Mississippi. His service with the Corps of Engineers extended over more than two decades.
Before coming to the Corps he worked in the river towing industry beginning in 1974 for Brent Towing Company. He earned his river pilot’s license in 1979.
Fellow vessel master Tony Johnston of the Memphis District’s Motor Vessel Strong remembered his friendship with Thomas.
“I cannot count the times that Thomas and I collaborated on issues concerning navigation, personnel policies, safety issues, and just about everything involving floating plant,” Johnston said. “We both started working on the old Dredge Burgess within weeks of each other, and immediately became fast friends. Even after he left us for the St. Louis District, we talked frequently about the various issues that we had to deal with as captains.”
In addition to being a skilled river pilot, Thomas was also eager to share his knowledge with his fellow rivermen. Joe Schafer, Assistant Master on the Dredge Hurley, said Thomas helped him learn the ropes.
“I knew Thomas for over 30 years,” Schafer said. “He was already working on the Hurley when I signed up in 1994. He immediately became my mentor. Boy, did I have a lot of questions! He was always there for me as I struggled to move up through the ranks. He taught me many things, but one thing really stuck, because I use it every day. He taught me when obstacles arose, pick the ‘battles’ that I had the best chances of overcoming, and let the rest run their course. I would not be in the position I am now, without persistence and guidance of my dear friend Thomas.”
Thomas’ love for the river extended far beyond his work for the Corps. He became part of river history by serving as navigator on three Mississippi River Challenge (speedboat) Races from New Orleans to St. Louis, a tradition dating back to the era of paddlewheel steamboats. His teams – led by Mike Reagan (son of the late President Ronald Reagan), actor Don Johnson and inventor Howard Arneson – always won, each time setting a new record. Their team ultimately cut the previous transit time in half.
“When you’re going over 100 m.p.h. and you hit a wave or the wake from a tow – man, you get airborne,” Thomas said in a 1991 RiverWatch article. “Your entire body vibrates and your head bobs up and down like a mini-cam in a stock car. You don’t feel it during the race because your adrenaline is pumping the whole time, but afterwards …”
Being on the river was clearly something he loved, but it was not his only passion.
Thomas was also a former Eagle Scout and was particularly dedicated to that organization and the values it embodies for young men. He served for several years as a teacher at the Scouts’ Camp Kickapoo near Clinton, Miss.
A devoted family man, Thomas is survived by his wife Dana Lyles George and daughter Emma Katherine George of St. Louis, and daughter Kayla Louise George Legons of Jackson, Tenn.
Laura Rowland, a civil engineer who works in our Project Operations Branch, has also served as the Mississippi River Commission liaison aboard the Motor Vessel Mississippi for several inspection trips. She got to see a side of Thomas that many others did not.
“When we worked on the Motor Vessel Mississippi together we would talk about what was going on, how we could improve, etc.,” Rowland said. “He’d give me advice, or give me another resource. And he drank Diet Coke by the gallon. I’m not sure I ever saw him drink anything else.
“One of the highlights of my days on the vessel were Thomas’ conversations with his daughter, MM (his nickname for Emma), the light of his life,” Rowland went on to say. “If I happened to be in the pilot house when he called her – he called her each evening to talk and say good night – you could hear the love in his voice. He had a great sense of humor, a dry sense of humor. Just thinking about him makes me smile! I miss Thomas.”
Devoted husband and father, skilled riverman, public servant, with a zest for adventure. Thomas packed all this and more into his brief time with us.
Frank Segree, Master of the Dredge Hurley did a good job of summing up Thomas’ life.
“He was the ‘go to Captain,’” Segree said. “He always had the answer or could point you in the right direction. His favorite saying that I remember was ‘Water will seek its course.’”
Fair winds and following seas Thomas. We will all miss you.