Editor’s Note: In honor and memory of Sharon Litwin, The Queen here at NolaVie, we will be publishing a piece from her every day for the next month. Sharon was an advocate and spokeswoman for arts, culture, people, and policies here in New Orleans. Her voice and sharp wit will be greatly missed.
To hear Sharon Litwin interview Doc Hawley on WWNO public radio, click here.
What do you think of when you hear the words “Mighty Mississippi”? The movie Showboat; the song Ol’ Man River; Mark Twain? How about Loretta Lyn and Conway Twitty singing Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man?
If you’re 78-year-old Clarke “Doc” Hawley, those things would hardly cross your mind. Because when you say Mighty Mississippi to him, he thinks calliope music and steamboat paddle wheelers. Well, of course, he does: He’s been playing the calliope and captaining paddle wheelers on this 2,530-mile-long river for more than 60 years. For the past 40 of those 60 years, he has lived right here in New Orleans.
Over his riverboat career, Hawley has probably seen more of the Mississippi system than any living boatman, having worked on nine rivers in 17 states with a pilot’s license that extends for 1,300 miles. But how does a man whose nickname is Doc end up on one of the most iconic rivers in the world? He says it all harks back to a summer job in his West Virginia home town.
“I was 16 and I worked behind the soda fountain in a drugstore. I was a soda jerk. I’m still a jerk,” he cracks with a smile. “Anyway, I got demoted when the druggist found out I was giving lagniappe in my sundaes and sodas. So he put me behind the pill department washing bottles. My friends teased about it and they started calling me Little Doc. The pharmacist was Big Doc. And that’s how I got the name.”
Even at that early age, Doc Hawley loved the sound the calliope made when the steamers came up the river to his home town. That summer, when he went on board one of them with his younger brother’s class, he asked the captain why he didn’t have the calliope playing. When the captain explained it was because the calliope player had quit in the town before, the never-shy young doc said he could play the calliope since his family had a pump organ at home and he played well by ear. So the captain let him try.
He passed the test. The captain hired him as the calliope player and popcorn-popper on the steamer Avalon for the grand sum of $35 a week plus room and board. And the rest, as they say, is history.
An encyclopedic authority on the lore of the Mississippi, Doc Hawley respects the important role this incredible body of water played as a transportation artery in the earliest days of the United States.
“The river from 1820 to 1900 was the interstate of its day,” Doc says. “It was only after the advent of railroads out to the edge of the river that that business ever fell behind.”
Doc Hawley is a natural raconteur. He can tell stories about how before 1900 there were women captains; how one captained a boat in the days before GPS systems were invented; how he met and knew some of the great jazz musicians who played on board.
And that’s what he is going to do this Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Old U.S. Mint at the foot of Barracks Street in the French Quarter. He is going to tell stories of the river as one of a series of performances and panel discussions at the first Mighty Mississippi Downriver Festival presented by the Historic French Market. Festivities kick off at 9 a.m. and conclude with a sacred second line from the Mint to the Mississippi at 5:30 p.m.
For more information visit www.frenchmarket.org for a full schedule of events.