Rowing great Harry Parker died nine days ago at the age of 77. Not knowing he had been ill, I was stunned to learn the news (via a tweet by WSJ sportswriter Jason Gay that night linking to Harvard’s news release), all the more since Harry always seemed ageless.
Like so many others, I view him as a major influence on my life, although I’ve had no contact with him for decades. As it happens, this week marks forty years since I accompanied him to the famed Henley regatta, where a Harvard crew won the Ladies’ Challenge Plate. That brought to an end my days as a member of Harvard crew.
Some facts, from the Harvard release:
Parker began his storied coaching career in 1960 as Harvard’s freshman coach. After the sudden death of head coach Harvey Love, Parker was promoted to the role which he would go on to hold for 51 seasons. Parker’s efforts also reached outside the Harvard rowing community, as evidenced by the 2008 dedication of Community Rowing, Inc.’s new boathouse in his honor.
During Parker’s tenure, Harvard crews enjoyed spectacular success at the Henley Royal Regatta in England. It began with the 1973 JV win of the Ladies’ Plate followed by the 1985 varsity win of the Grand Challenge Cup, its fifth and most recent title in Henley’s most prestigious race. Harvard went on to six more varsity victories in the Ladies’ Plate. The victory in 2012, beating Leander by one foot, was one of the most thrilling victories of his career as the crew overcame a three-seat deficit over the final 50 meters. Harvard also won three times in the Britannia and Prince Albert fours events. The Crimson owns three course records at Henley, more than any other university.
The Crimson also won the 1965 Lucerne International Regatta, took second at the 1967 world championships, captured the 1967 Pan American Games and claimed the 1968 U.S. Olympic trials before taking sixth in the Games at Mexico City. Additionally, a total of 52 Parker-coached Harvard oarsmen have rowed at the Olympic Games over the past six decades.
From 1964 in Tokyo until 1984 in Los Angeles, Parker regularly coached U.S. Olympic crews, leading both men’s and women’s entries to strong finishes in the eights and handling the sculling at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. He coached the 1972 Olympic men’s eight, which featured five Harvard oarsmen, to a silver medal and led the first U.S. women’s national team to compete in the world championships, earning a bronze in 1975. Parker later coached the U.S. women’s eight to a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.
In 1980, Parker coached the U.S. men’s Olympic eight, which ranked second in the world prior to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. In 1985, he coached single sculler Andy Sudduth ’83-85 to an astonishing performance in the World Rowing Championships, during which Sudduth finished second and defeated four-time world champion Peter Michael Kolbe of Germany.
Parker began rowing as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was part of victorious crews in 1955 at Sprints and the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley. After graduating, he took up single sculling and won the gold medal at the 1959 Pan American Games. He then placed fifth in the single at the 1960 Olympics.
The most prestigious event in rowing is the Olympic eights competition. For much of the twentieth century, the US entry was our best collegiate crew, and it would win the gold medal. (There’s a current bestselling book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown, about the University of Washington crew that won the eights that year.) But in 1960 a German crew won, suggesting that the rest of the world had caught up and we couldn’t continue to win with college kids. In 1964, we reclaimed the gold with a crew of older rowers from Philadelphia’s Vesper Boat Club. Harry’s 1968 Harvard crew was the last college crew to represent the US. They won the Olympic trials, went to Mexico City, qualified for the final, came down with intestinal illnesses, and finished sixth.
The time had come to send not our best crew among competing boats but our best oarsmen. Harry was picked to run the 1972 Olympic team alluded to in the quote above. He established the model, setting up a camp, inviting the top oarsmen in the country, and selecting the eight best for the Olympic boat. At its heart was two pairs of brothers who had been the heart of Harvard’s best crews in the preceding years. The boat won the silver medal, behind New Zealand.
It’s during this period that I showed up, going out for the freshman crew in the fall of 1969. My father had rowed at Penn, like Harry some years later, and I loved the sport, but I wasn’t very good. Sophomore year, by happenstance, I returned to the boathouse as a manager. Junior year I became what Harvard called the “varsity manager”, the #2 staff member, assisting the “undergraduate manager” in arranging trips and attending to other needs. Senior year, I was the undergraduate manager. In that role, I spent countless hours around Harry.
Harry coached until the end. Just a month ago, his crew finished second to Washington in the IRA Regatta, the unofficial national championship, and beat Yale a week later in the Harvard-Yale Regatta, the oldest intercollegiate event among all sports.
The Harvard-Yale race is distinctive because it continues to be rowed at its traditional distance of 4 miles, on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut. The standard distance for international and intercollegiate rowing now is 2000 meters, or about a mile and a quarter. The switch from this to 4 miles is challenging. To prepare, the Harvard and Yale crews built separate camps decades ago on the Thames upstream of New London, each complete with boathouse, primitive housing, a cafeteria, and a small house for the coach. It falls to the undergraduate manager to run the camp, which I did for two weeks in 1973.
In those days, Harvard and Yale never competed in the IRA, because it conflicted with their race. I don’t know the arrangements now, but I’m guessing they have shortened the time they spend at the camps. Indeed, in 1974, the year after I graduated, Yale moved its own graduation date up and decided not to compete with Harvard, since doing so on the usual date would have forced the oarsmen to stick around for weeks. (Harvard went instead to Madison to race Wisconsin and on to Seattle to race Washington, a rare dual race of crews representing two historic rowing traditions.)
The two weeks at Red Top—the Harvard camp—were an intense time. We would head down right after final exams. Or maybe it was even before finals ended, with finals proctored at the camp as needed. The race would be on a Saturday, with graduation on Thursday two days before. One consequence is that graduating seniors didn’t attend graduation. Not in Cambridge, that is. Instead, Harry would run an unofficial graduation ceremony after dinner on graduation day. The undergraduate manager would drive up to Cambridge in the morning to pick up the diplomas.
That’s me. And that’s what I did. Instead of attending morning graduation in Harvard Yard, I arrived at the boathouse to pick up some supplies, headed to the registrar’s office to pick up the diplomas, was told that they couldn’t release one diploma because one of the senior co-captains owed some funds, then dashed over to Mather House, my residential house, for the post-graduation lunch and house ceremony. My parents had flown up for that, so I got to spend a little time with them, then headed over to Quincy House to say goodbye to a good friend, and back to the registrar’s office to sort out the diploma problem. A well-timed emergency phone call to Red Top, the writing of a personal check to cover the balance, diploma in hand, I drove back to Red Top.
I missed a lot that day. But I had the honor of receiving my diploma from Harry, who spoke a few words about each of the graduating seniors. I had no doubt I was in the right place.
The NYT obituary gets close to capturing Harry’s mysterious essence and why receiving my diploma from him was an honor.
Beyond the innovations in equipment and training, Parker was known as a personality. Like Rockne and Wooden, he became legendary in his sport and something of a cult figure on campus. A taciturn but highly competitive figure, he imbued in his athletes a sense of purpose and dedication that helped his crews cohere and endure both the anticipated and experienced agony at the finish of a close race. And his influence was lasting, some of his former rowers say.
“The standards Harry set were there long after you stopped rowing,” said Kip McDaniel, a financial writer who rowed varsity crew for Harvard from 2002 to 2004. “Before a race, you knew the pain was unavoidable. But one of Harry’s great gifts was for creating crews. They were communities where there was simply no doubt that everyone was going to live up to Harry’s expectations, and as a result you were probably going to win the race.”
As news of Parker’s death spread, similar sentiments were expressed by others from previous generations.
“Working with him, you saw that as you applied yourself, you could apply yourself a bit more,” said Dr. Paul G. Ramsey, who rowed for Harvard from 1967 to 1971. Now chief executive of UW Medicine, which operates hospitals and clinics in Washington State, and dean of the University of Washington medical school, Dr. Ramsey added, “He was the best teacher I ever had.”
Rockne and Wooden! That’s rarefied company. I overlapped with Paul Ramsey. Years later, i would find myself at the same university, and even joined him as a dean for a while. Small world and all that.
One of my favorite memories, from that 1973 stay at Red Top, was of an afternoon when everyone else was napping following morning practice and lunch, before the afternoon practice. It was hot and humid, a good time to be asleep. But I was up, as was Harry, so we started up a croquet game, soon to be joined by our varsity boat’s stroke, Al Shealy (later to stroke the 1975 world champion crew and 1976 Olympic silver medal crew). Harry was competitive as always. The focus was on winning, not chit chat.
A few weeks later, we were in Nottingham for a new international regatta, which we were using as a tuneup for the Henley regatta. Harry and I took an after-dinner walk, with a low sun shining in our eyes as we crossed the River Trent. A beautiful evening. And the first time that he asked what it was I planned to do now that I had graduated, despite all the time we spent together. It was all about crew. Nothing personal. But that made sense. We had work to do, races to win. That was the focus.
Another memory: the weekend in Annapolis that May for the Adams Cup, the annual race between Harvard, Penn, and Navy. Winds were expected, the races should have been moved up, but the admiral wanted to come out and watch, and the starting times went unchanged. That was the story anyway. The winds picked up after the freshmen rowed, the remaining races were postponed to the next day, and suddenly I had to re-book 50 people for either a later plane that day or a plane the next day, plus figure out how to feed them Saturday lunch and dinner and make meal arrangements for Sunday.
Won, the JV coxswain had been unable to make the trip because of a Saturday exam. In the pre-cell-phone era, I somehow got word to him while he was seated in a theater Saturday to get on an airplane to Baltimore. My varsity manager Bill and I dropped off the freshman crew, then awaited the incoming plane to see if Won made it. He did. Sunday morning his boat awoke to the surprise that he was there to race with them. That was fun.
When we got back to Logan Sunday evening, while Bill and I were handing everyone cash as they came off the plane so they could take the subway back to Cambridge (in lieu of the rented bus we had set up for Saturday), Harry walked up to us and said words I thought I would never forget. Alas, I have now, but I was sure then that they were the highest praise I would ever receive from anyone, given that until then I had never heard words of praise from him at all.
The next winter, Harry decided everyone on the crew should take up cross country skiing as cross training for rowing. I was in graduate school at that point, but still had some friends on the crew, especially Won and Bill. Prompted by Won, I went out to the suburbs with him to Harry’s house so we could go skiing with Harry at an adjacent golf course. A couple of days later, I went to Eastern Mountain Sports in Boston with Won to buy new skis, practicing around the boathouse and the athletic fields the next day. With that as my total experience on skis, I joined a caravan of crew members the next weekend to drive up to Vermont and compete in a Washington’s Birthday weekend race. That’s a story in its own right, and this isn’t the place. Suffice to say that my accomplishments were sufficiently notable that I led the NYT coverage of the race the day after.
I realize that none of what I’ve written conveys Harry’s essence. Sorry. I don’t know how. He was unique. When my parents came up to Red Top two days after flying to Boston for my abbreviated appearance at graduation, I was thrilled that I could introduce them to Harry, before abandoning them one more time to jump in the launch with Harry so that we could head downstream to the start of the four-mile race and follow the two boats up to the finish. It’s hard to believe now how much crew dominated my undergraduate years, but it did. Which means, inasmuch as Harry was the center of Harvard crew, he dominated my life. In some sense anyway. Which is why his death comes as such a shock.