Just off Kelly Drive, Frank McCloskey held up a hand Thursday afternoon, stopping a boat trailer from running over any rowers from St. Joseph's or Florida State or Purdue.
Mission accomplished, McCloskey took a moment to reminisce about his first Dad Vail final, when he sat in the No. 6 seat for La Salle College in 1956.
"I switched side from starboard to port with one week's preparation," McCloskey said Thursday. "When the race was over, somebody could have hit my arm with a brick and I would have had no idea at all."
Three years running, from 1956-58, La Salle won the Dad Vail heavyweight eight. But even that wasn't the greatest of the boat's accomplishments. For the last half-century, the core of that boat was the core that ran the Dad Vail.
Jack Galloway, the No. 3 seat in '57, still is Dad Vail chairman. Robert Morro, the No. 7 seat, who had been chief judge for more than a decade, still is regatta secretary - in charge of inviting schools and putting together the heat sheets. La Salle's No. 8 seat, the stroke man, Vincent "Murph" Szymkowski, was treasurer for years and still is involved.
These days, the Dad Vail is a professional operation, with a small, full-time staff. But this was the regatta's greatest generation, the guys who helped grow the Dad Vail, which began in 1934, from the 12 or 15 schools involved when they rowed to its present 120, making it the largest collegiate regatta in the country.
On Thursday, Galloway pulled up to the river and grabbed his Dad Vail committee sportcoat out of his trunk. The jacket itself is a piece of history. It once belonged to a former committeeman named Ernie Bayer, a rower so dedicated that he had kept his own wedding secret from his 1928 Olympic coach, fearing he might lose his spot on the team.
The Dad Vail coats are expensive, Galloway said, so they tend to get recycled. He joked that he'll show up at a wake for a fallen committeeman and say to the widow, "You don't really want to bury the coat?"
In a way, he's just following the traditions he learned at La Salle.
"When we got a new boat, it was probably a used boat that was painted to look new," Galloway said.
In their day, sacrifice went beyond the workouts. From his home in Port Richmond, Szymkowski took a trolley, a subway, and another subway to get to La Salle. He'd catch a ride to the river for practice, then get another trolley home. He lived near the end of the line, he said, which was a good thing since he sometimes fell asleep after a tough practice.
In 1957, they lost only once, to Rutgers on the Raritan River, when their coxswain tried to cut it as close as he could to a channel marker and the No. 5 seat hit the marker with his oar, then he caught a crab, leaving his oar in the water, ejecting him from the boat. La Salle rowed with seven men for the remainder of the race.
There was no great drama for La Salle in those victorious Dad Vail finals. They all knew how to get out quickly. "The more times you go to the line, you learn what you're doing. . . . Once you're a racer, you're a racer," Galloway said.
And the sport gets in your blood. From 1955 to this week, Morro has missed only one Dad Vail, in 1959 when he was in the service. He remembers when visiting Dad Vail rowers stayed on Boathouse Row. "We'd go down to the Navy Yard and get some cots," Morro said.
He's proud to see the explosive growth of the event, which began as a race for schools that were just beginning in the sport. The Ivy Leaguers had their own races. National powers weren't coming to the Schuylkill. But the Dad Vail doesn't need the big powers. This became a destination event of its own, with crowds that often dwarfed the sport's biggest college regattas. Women's races were added in 1976.
"If we counted noses, there are probably more female than male rowers now," Morro said.
The La Salle group doesn't mind turning over the reins at the Dad Vail, and none of them is too proud to do the menial tasks, including directing foot traffic around the registration tents.
As rowers all around him carried their boats to the river, Morro said, "Something must be going right."