Fifty years have passed since Georg Kenny joined the SIU, but he doesn’t need prompts to recall his feelings from that time.
“I was down on my luck, and a few guys in the neighborhood (in Brooklyn, New York) were merchant seamen,” Kenny said. “Two were SIU members and one was NMU. They kept encouraging me to join the industry. ‘You’ll fit right in,’ they told me.”
They were right.
“After the arduous torment of being a C-card, I finally got out (on a ship),” Kenny remembered. “I was the galley boy on the Robin Gray and I thought I was a rich man, making all of $450 a month. From the moment I got on board (April 28, 1970), I was hooked and I never looked back.”
Kenny, 74, recently retired from his post as the SIU port agent in Norfolk, Virginia. He had sailed off and on throughout the 1970s, then consistently from 1980 until coming ashore to work for the union in 2000 (he became a recertified steward in 1991).
“Georg has always looked out for the interest of the Seafarer, whether at sea or ashore as an official,” said SIU Secretary-Treasurer David Heindel. “His soft touch was always effective in his representation. If that failed to convince a company, he could filibuster for hours to gain the upper hand. I wish him well in his retirement.”
SIU Vice President Atlantic Coast Joseph Soresi said, “Georg is a great guy and he’s always there for the members and the union. He’s very dedicated and although this is a big loss, I wish him all the best in retirement.”
SIU Vice President Contracts George Tricker playfully said Kenny’s verbal stamina served the union well during negotiations, and added, “He dedicated his life to the SIU, and will be missed.”
Kenny’s overarching memories of his decades with the union always include his sobriety – something he candidly discusses because he wants to help others and because of his gratitude. “It’s like the SIU took me when nobody else would,” he said. “In simplest form, the Seafarers took me as I was. There came a point where I realized my life was totally unmanageable.”
While upgrading at the union-affiliated school in Piney Point, Maryland, Kenny had a chance meeting with someone who took him to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “That turned into a 12-week rehab (at the school’s addictions rehabilitation center, often called the ARC or the farm),” Kenny remembered. “If it weren’t for the farm, I don’t think I’d be alive, let alone clean and sober for the past 35 years.”
A U.S. Air Force veteran, Kenny is equally forthcoming about his transition period from shipboard life to patrolman. After finally relenting to the longstanding and oft-repeated invitation from then-SIU Vice President Kermett Mangram, he reacted to the conclusion of his first day on the new job by exclaiming, “What was I thinking?!”
Nevertheless, he adjusted and came to love the job. And he cites becoming a port agent in 2001 as “one of the proudest moments of my career.”
Working as a union official often meant involvement in central labor councils, the state AFL-CIO and the local port council in addition to SIU-specific work.
“At one time it felt as if I was wearing 11 different hats, but it’s because of the SIU that I found the labor movement,” Kenny noted. “Everything I have is all because of the SIU.”
He also found time to assist fellow Seafarers who struggled with substance-abuse issues, and views those interactions as part of the reason he was drawn to shoreside work.
“Nobody bats 1.000 but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to help a lot people,” he said.
Kenny and his wife (a former Seafarer who sailed for about 10 years) plan to remain in the Norfolk area, and he aims to complete his bachelor’s degree.
Asked about the timing of his retirement, he answered, “When members would come to the hall and file their retirement papers, they’d often say they just woke up one morning and realized it was time. That’s where I am – no regrets, it’s just time. You might say I’m in the last chapters of my book, and I plan to make the most of it. If nothing else, it’ll give me more opportunities to get back into the recovery meetings (with greater frequency).”
He clarified that his health is “excellent,” and added his thanks to the union’s executive board and personnel in the admissions, claims, academic and manpower offices “for teaching me what I needed to know in order to do the job.”
His advice for anyone considering becoming a mariner?
“Fill out the application for the apprentice program now,” he immediately replied. “Just do it. You’ll never regret it, and remember that the more you learn, the more you’re going to earn.”