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Retired ExxonMobil exec to lead U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

Jack Buono, a graduate of the Academy in Kings Point, will replace Rear Adm. James A. Helis as superintendent, effective Nov. 9.

Retired shipping industry executive Jack Buono took the

Retired shipping industry executive Jack Buono took the helm of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at a ceremony Friday. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Transportation

Jack Buono, a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, has been named the school's new superintendent, officials said Friday.

Buono, 62, who recently served as president and CEO of ExxonMobil's shipping subsidiary, will replace Rear Adm. James A. Helis. He will take command at the Academy on Nov. 9, according to Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby, who made the announcement Friday.  Buono could not be reached for comment.

“As a Kings Point graduate who spent his entire career in Maritime leadership roles, Mr. Buono will help educate and inspire the next generation of Maritime cadets,” Buzby said in a statement.

Following his graduation from the Academy, Buono worked his way up from a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed third mate to an unlimited master mariner with ExxonMobil Corp.  

In 1991, he transferred ashore and, after rising through several management positions, was named president and CEO of SeaRiver Maritime Inc., where he served until his retirement in 2016 after 38 years with ExxonMobil and SeaRiver Maritime.

Helis left as superintendent to take a top job at the Maritime Administration in Washington, the agency that oversees the federal service academy in Kings Point, officials announced in May.

Helis presided over a period of turmoil at the 75-year-old academy, seeking to resolve yearslong concerns over the school’s handling of sexual misconduct. The school, which has an enrollment of more than 900, has struggled in recent years to address sexual misconduct, harassment, bullying and coercion in its ranks, Newsday reported in 2017.

Reforms under his administration included training programs and the addition of a “restricted” reporting process that allows students to report incidents without triggering the involvement of law enforcement.

In August, leadership of the Academy released a five-year strategic plan that included fostering a "climate of respect" among the six priorities.

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who sits on the Board of Visitors for the Merchant Marine Academy, said Friday, "I look forward to working with Mr. Buono on preparing the next generation of Merchant Mariners and building on the recent progress the Academy has made to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for all cadets. I also want to thank and acknowledge Administrator Buzby for his service and willingness to work with me."

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), past chairman of the Board of Visitors, said Friday he did not know Buono personally, but "from all accounts he seems to be a popular choice and a qualified choice."

"We are off to a good start, and he is a graduate of the Academy and he understands what has to be done," King said.

When Helis arrived, the academy was under pressure to fix its infrastructure and address issues of leadership. A federal report detailed $300 million in needed capital infrastructure improvements. Three years earlier, in 2009, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found “numerous instances of improper and questionable sources and uses of funds by the Academy and its affiliated organizations.”

The academy received record funding to fix the crippling infrastructure during the Obama administration as Helis oversaw multimillion-dollar renovations to piers, dormitories and other structures. In recent years, the campus’ dining facilities and dormitories were fully renovated, the crumbling Mallory Pier was restored, and in 2014 the academy christened a new training vessel, the 176-foot Kings Pointer.

"Jack Buono is the ideal candidate to take the Academy to the next level,” Buzby said. “He has impeccable credentials on the waterfront and, as an alumnus, fully understands the Academy’s mission to provide its students with the highest caliber of training and education needed to lead afloat and ashore.”

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