National Achievement Award Winners
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Award Winners

Achievement Award Winners

The National Achievement Award is the highest honor presented by the National Rivers Hall of Fame to those people who are making significant contributions to America’s waterways. The National Rivers Hall of Fame with members in 36 states is the only national museum telling the stories of the people of America’s rivers.

Debra Calhoun

Honored in 2019.

Deb Calhoun has been contributing as a talented and effective voice on behalf of the river transportation industry for more than a quarter of a century. 

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Deb grew up in York, Pennsylvania—far from the waterways with which she now works. Deb studied English with a writing concentration in college and began her career in communications with the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and later for the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) in Washington, DC.

“Interestingly, my former boss at AIA had served in the Navy with Joe Farrell, then-President/CEO of the American Waterways Operators (AWO),” Deb stated. “He arranged an interview for me with Joe for the Director of Public Affairs position at AWO. Joe was wonderful and was far less concerned that I knew very little about the inland waterways and was more focused on how my personality would contribute to his close-knit staff.  During our interview, he told me to put away the examples of my work that I brought with me and tell him my best joke. He said he knew I had an appropriate public affairs/communications background and would learn about the industry, so he needed to see if I would be an asset to the fine staff he had in place. It was quite a unique interview, but I loved working for Joe.

"That was the beginning of my career in the inland waterways industry in 1991, 30 years ago! I left AWO in 1995 to raise my two sons (Max, 25 and Jack, 22) and begin a maritime communications consultancy practice.  As a consultant, I worked with many facets of the marine industry – offshore, salvage, international shipbuilding, dredging – and then began working with Waterways Work! (WW), WCI’s predecessor organization, in 2001. WW became WCI in 2003, and I closed my practice and came on as a full-time staff member of WCI in 2012.”

When asked about the role she has found communications playing in the maritime industry at a professional level, Deb reflected on her efforts with Waterways Work! and WCI.

“I am proud to have helped develop the Waterways Work! communication strategy that would become WCI’s, which is a mix of member communication and assertive media outreach. WCI advocates for efficient lock and dam infrastructure, but in so doing also works hard to educate Members of Congress, the Administration, the news media and the general public about the critical importance of the inland waterways to the nation and the world.”

Every industry has experienced major changes since the early nineties. Deb shared with us her feelings about some of the positive changes she has witnessed over time. 

“In the early days of my career, the industry seemed to prefer to stay out of the light of the news media, but we knew that we had a very good story to tell about the many benefits of inland waterways transportation and if we were not at the table, we would likely end up on the menu, so to speak. We found that engaging our stakeholder members in visits that we would organize with local newspapers in their states or cities or regions was a great way to explain how the waterways impacted that state/city/region.

"Our members are proud of the work they do and the value they bring to the economy, how they support shippers of the nation’s building block commodities, and how environmentally friendly the waterways mode is.  It was a perfect way to get that earned media from smaller papers and then move on to national and even international recognition because we had laid the groundwork for truthful and positive news media attention.

"I am always full of hope for the river transportation industry because it has all the elements for success: those who work in this industry have so much pride in what they do and they are happy to tell you about it and to help you understand it. They certainly did that for me at the start of my career in the industry. The value of what we do -- moving the nation’s key commodities in the most cost-competitive, environmentally friendly, fuel efficient, safe way -- strengthens our U.S. economy, creates and sustains American jobs, facilitates manufacturing, energy, and construction, and feeds the world.

"Although I touched upon WCI’s history, its mission is to advocate for a modern and well-maintained, modern inland waterways system. We do that by lobbying Congress for full and efficient, robust funding for the Corps of Engineers facilitate building the locks and dams and maintaining the waterways, but we also work to enhance the system through the development of good policy and to push back on bad ideas like higher taxes and tolls on our rivers.  We also work directly with our stakeholder members to raise their voice on these important issues.  And then, as I said, we communicate the value of the waterways to our many audiences in Washington, DC and throughout the nation.

"I have not actually counted the number of editorial board visits we made or the number of articles that were published about our point of view, but it is in the multi-hundreds. Our prevailing positive viewpoint has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, The Guardian (UK), The Economist, Politico, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, the major TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox), the maritime and trade media outlets, and many, many more. That thrills me to have played a part in educating so many about this industry and all that it provides to so many.     

"Receiving the National Rivers Hall of Fame National Achievement Award in 2019 in recognition of my work was the proudest moment of my career – and it was a complete surprise!  To be among so many highly respected people who have received the award before me, including Cherrie Felder, my husband, Rick Calhoun, Merritt Lane, Mark Knoy, Craig Philip, Barry Palmer, Bobby Guthans, Charlie Jones, Chad Pregracke, Berdon Lawrence, among many others, is so humbling.” 

In addition to her impact at WCI, Calhoun served a variety of maritime industry clients as the former President/CEO of Colbert Communications, a communications consultancy practice. She also served in public affairs and communications for the American Waterways Operators, as well as the Telecommunications Industry Association and the Aerospace Industries Association. Calhoun also serves as Secretary of the National Waterways Foundation.

Last updated in 2021.

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