Boathouse Row: Waves of Change

Sisters Ann Jonik (left) and Marie Jonik in a crew that wins the Masters Women's Eight event at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta in 2015. Their mother, Mary Prior Jonik, was a founding member of the Philadelphia Girls' Rowing Club, and both daughters rowed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Photo by April Saul

For more than 175 years, Boathouse Row has been a cradle of competition, a place where people develop a passion for one of the most physically demanding sports. This month's Head of the Schuylkill Regatta is a measure of the explosion of enthusiasm for rowing.

More than 8,000 oarsmen and oarswomen from more than two dozen states and about 10 countries will compete Oct. 29 and 30 in one of the largest and most inclusive rowing events in the country. Such fervor also drove a motley crew to train here 50 years ago in long-shot hopes of Olympic glory.

In an excerpt from her new book, "Boathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing," Dotty Brown, reveals what motivated these men, so hungry for gold.

 

The somewhat rumpled, sometimes unruly men who found their way to the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia by 1964 shared little in common but strength, height, an incomprehensible joy in punishing their bodies, and a beyond-burning desire to succeed. They included four men in their mid- to late 20s on loan from various branches of the military; two students from La Salle College barely out of their teens; a 34-year-old father of six with a business to run; and the coxswain, a 46-year-old Hungarian refugee who often muttered commands in his native language. Their coaches? A Jew and a German, within short memory of World War II.

"Old men," "a curious crew," "a crusty bunch of adults," the press would later call them. Regardless of their differences, they all had come together with a single purpose, matched by the determination to do whatever it would take to get them there. Some, carrying humiliation on their shoulders, were driven by a lifelong hunger to prove themselves. Others, battling the unhealed wounds of past defeats, ached for vengeance, for victory at last.

That is how it was for Emory Clark. He arrived at Yale in 1956, just before the university's eight-oared crew returned home from Australia with Olympic gold medals. The cocky freshman assumed that four years later he, too, would bask in Olympic glory. Everything pointed that way. After all, he had rowed successfully at Groton. He had captained Yale's freshman crew to an undefeated season and had continued to pile up victories throughout his sophomore and junior years. The 1960 Rome Olympics were within his grasp.

Then came senior year. The Yale eight lost every single race. But the worst defeat, the one that replayed in an endless loop through his mind, was the crew's loss - his loss - to Harvard in the schools' annual four-mile race. The tradition went back to 1852, when the two schools squared off against each other in the nation's first collegiate competition. Emory's crew - the crew of which he was captain - crossed the finish line an ego-shattering seven boat lengths behind Harvard.

"Despair. A broken heart. A life ended in tragedy at a youthful 22," he would later write in his memoir - only somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

Boyce Budd, a fellow Yalie a year behind Clark, graduated with a similar psychic wound. As a freshman, Boyce - at 6 feet 3 inches and 205 pounds - had long searched for a sport in which his powerful body could excel. A "Clydesdale," he called himself, as compared to a thoroughbred. He was thrilled to find that he was good at rowing. So good, in fact, that he made varsity his sophomore year. Then, for reasons he never understood, he was demoted to junior varsity for the remainder of his Yale career.

"He was too big, too rough, too strong," Emory would say of Boyce, or "Big Turkey" as Emory called him. (Not that Emory, at 6 feet 4 inches and 195 pounds, was much smaller.) The coaches "weren't good enough to harness his talent."

There would be no 1960 Olympics for these men. Yet they yearned.

Boyce graduated and went to Cambridge University in England, where he kept on rowing. Emory, uncertain about what to do with his life, enlisted in the Marines. The memory of that Harvard defeat dug into him like a claw. He thought about it in Okinawa or Thailand or wherever he happened to be in Southeast Asia as Americans became increasingly involved in Vietnam.

In November 1962, Emory received a letter that would change everything. "Dear Em," Boyce wrote, "I have decided that come Hell or high water I for one am going to be participating in the 1964 Olympic Trials. ... I sincerely hope that you and I can team up in a pair and win the whole lot. ... It is going to take an extraordinary effort. ... With a will and the kind of devotion that it will take, you and I could win two gold medals. ... We must start now! What do you think, Buddy?"

Emory's heart leapt at the idea. In a dance hall in Olongapo, off Subic Bay in the Philippines, Infantry Lieutenant Clark paid no attention to the for-hire women who accosted him while he composed his letter to military brass. It was filled with bravado. He was "God's gift to rowing," Clark would later quip, though he did not exactly write those words. He was Olympic material. He asked to be sent home to train, somewhere on the East Coast. His letter went up the chain of command in a military that honors athletes. Months later, he got orders to transfer to Philadelphia, as good a place as any, he thought.

Emory arrived just after Labor Day 1963. That afternoon he called around to see how he could get on the river in a single scull that day. Someone at the Fairmount Rowing Association offered him a boat that weekend. Vesper invited him to row that very afternoon. "Come at 5 - I'll call Jack Kelly," an acquaintance who belonged to Vesper told him.

"I'd never heard of the Vesper Boat Club, but I was going to pull an oar before I slept," Emory would write in his diary.

So, with its quick reflexes, the Vesper Boat Club acquired Emory Clark, and a month later, after his discharge from the Marines, Boyce Budd. The two men added to the ragtag but formidable crew that Olympian John B. Kelly Jr. was laboring to put together in his long-shot drive for Vesper oarsmen to reach the 1964 Olympics.

To contact Dotty Brown, visit http://boathouserowthebook.com.

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