Vesper rower recalls Olympic glory of '64

Trophies from the storied past of the Vesper Boat Club in a case in their boat house. (Eric Mencher/Inquirer)

All the baloney about winning and losing could wait. Emory Clark only felt glad not to be rowing anymore. That's how Clark described in his diary the end of the gold medal race of the 1964 Olympics, when a boat out of Philadelphia got to stop first.

Clark remembered the "groove of pain" he was in that darkened October evening just outside Tokyo, how relieved he was that the United States Olympic eight didn't have to find another gear, another "more exquisite level" of pain to upset the heavily favored Germans.

Along the same waterway that will host this weekend's Head of the Schuylkill Regatta, nine men had trained for a year out of the Vesper Boat Club, assembled by John B. Kelly Jr.

Clark can tell you most vividly about one stroke of that Olympic final. The description can produce goose bumps. "I don't get goose bumps," Clark said over the phone this week, five decades later. "I get terror, how my life would have changed and everyone else's."

There were two La Salle College graduates in the boat, one also a Central High graduate, Stan Cwiklinski. Also, a La Salle High graduate, and a Temple graduate coaching them. Boyce Budd, who sat in front of Clark in the boat, now lives in Devon. His gold medal was taken in a burglary in 1980. The oldest of the rowers, Bill Knecht, already was in the sheet metal contracting business and had six kids, and is now buried at a local cemetery, his gold medal with him.

"The only time we were together was when we were taking hard strokes," Clark said. "Just then."

A Yale man then in the Marines, Clark had worked to get a transfer from the Philippines stateside to attempt to train with his friend Budd and compete in an Olympic double. It was coincidence that Clark ended up stationed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, a greater coincidence that he ended up at Vesper. The club had a boat he could borrow that day.

If Clark had been transferred instead to some other rowing stronghold, to Boston or Seattle or Connecticut, "I don't think anybody in those places had what Kelly had in his head: 'I can put together a club boat that can beat the collegians,' " Clark said.

There was more help that resulted in Olympic gold, from Vesper's coach, Al Rosenberg, the Temple man who went on to coach at St. Joseph's, and a key trainer, Dietrich Rose, an immigrant from Germany, bringing techniques not used before in this country. Rose still rows regularly on the Schuylkill.

An attorney still practicing in Michigan, Clark talks about the fascination and mystique of the Olympics, how "most of us yearn for an ideal of human behavior to which we can commit without reservation." He knows the ideal doesn't necessarily exist now and didn't fully exist then. But people still want to touch that medal, he said. He's loaned it to a hardware store and a gas station for exhibits.

"The great thing that happens now, they put it around their necks and they all take selfies," Clark said. "You tell somebody you're an Olympic gold medalist - they don't care what sport it's in, it could be tiddledywinks."

What could have changed it all? Clark, who has just written his own book that he is self-publishing, also described it for stroke Bill Stowe's book, All Together. He recounted the scene after the U.S. boat had pulled away from Germany: "Just about then, as I was rowing along thinking how tired I was, my blade slapped a wave on the recovery and spun in my hands so that when I got to the catch that lovely cupped Karlish oar was backwards. . . . Never having experienced that precise misadventure before, I did not know precisely what to do."

If he had tried to put the oar right back into the water, he might have stopped the boat, and certainly would have slowed it. His instinct paid off, to skip a stroke - "I pulled what the British call an 'air shot.' "

If it hadn't worked out, if he hadn't gotten right back in sync, Clark can imagine what it would have been like to live with that level of misfortune for 50 years. Terror seems appropriate.

Perspective also is gained from times such as when Clark talked to a second-grade class. He knew that his audience knew nothing about the Olympics, so he worked to explain the whole thing. He thought he had gotten through, "getting a little traction," he said, when a little girl raised her hand.

Her question of the great gold medalist before her: "Do you have a dog?"