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Article Posted: 10/01/2021
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My largest cohort of neighbors in the Arizona desert is from the Northwest; more specifically the state of Washington; even more specifically the Seattle area. Seahawks and UW paraphernalia adorn autos, homes, restaurants, and people.

Unfortunately, the origin of the region’s fame is not acknowledged, and I suspect, by and large unknown—perhaps lost. I hope to correct that oversight in this essay, and at the end, I will recommend an outstanding work of literature for those who wish to learn more.

First, I need to digress a bit about collegiate athletes of today; not to be critical, but to provide a datum. Most Division I athletes today receive four-year scholarships for tuition, board, etc.—the so-called full ride. In addition, the schools arrange for them to have jobs during the off-season. Well and good. My brother was such a recipient at the University of Michigan. However, unlike most of today’s athletes, he completed both undergraduate and graduate studies. His goal was education not future employment in basketball.

Since mid-twentieth century, football is king. At Michigan (and I suspect many other schools), the football program finances all other sports especially those of Title IX. In the Babe Ruth days of the 1920s and 30s, that wasn’t so. The athletes who got their pictures on National magazines were largely those who rowed 62-feet long boats. Crew was king, especially eights with coxswain. Falling in lockstep with the English institutions of Cambridge and Eton, crew was the “property” of Eastern universities especially those of the Ivy League. Sons of the wealthy, governors, senators, and presidents manned the oars.

During the 1920s, crews from UW and University of California (Berkley) started making some noise, especially when a former UW coxswain named Ky Ebright took over the UCB coaching reins. Cal won Olympic Gold in 1928 and 1932. Former UW stroke, Al Ulbrickson, then UW coach set his sights on Berlin and the 1936 Olympic Games. To be the USA representative, UW had to beat Cal and the elitist eastern universities at the collegiate national championships in New York. To say UW, now the Huskies (that’s right, the school’s nickname comes from the UW eight-oared crew), weren’t exactly welcome is a gross understatement. Seattle was considered a barbaric backwater, and their boat, the Husky Clipper, was rowed by sons of farmers, miners, and loggers. I mean, PUH-lease! They won the national regatta, and a few weeks later, the Olympic Trials going away. They were Olympians.

Ah-ah-ah, not so fast, said the Olympic Committee. We are not paying your way. You’ll have to come up with $5,000 in a week or we’ll send the second place boat from Penn of the Ivy League. After all, they have no trouble with money. This was in the middle of the depression, and the UW crew had to scape bottom just to get to Poughkeepsie and the Nationals. Seething red hot anger at the injustice, the Seattle Times donated $500 and went on a frantic campaign to raise the money, which they did. BTW, mighty Standard Oil gave $50.

The boys went to Germany where on parade they were bombarded with “Sieg Heil!” and “Heil Hitler!”. They raised their fists and replied to the crowd, “Heil Roosevelt!” The USA crew in the Husky Clipper won their trial setting new Olympic and World records.

Then more injustice.

Lane assignments in all Olympic sports reward the best trial times with the best lanes. Not in the 1936 eights. The two fastest boats (USA and England) were given the two worst lanes, and Germany and her ally, Italy, the two best lanes. The fix was in. Al Ulbrickson was hopping up-and-down angry. He had earlier failed to get the two outside lanes, which were open to the tides and waves of the sea removed from the competition. He claimed crews in those lanes had a two-boat-length disadvantage. All the cheating did was make the race close. USA nipped Germany and Italy at the wire to win gold right under Hitler’s nose. He and his Nazi staff stomped off.

Al Ulbrickson and the boys were besieged by reporters, cameras, and autograph seekers; and given a ticker-tape parade in New York City. They had put Seattle and their school on the map. Today the coach and his boys are gone, but the Husky Clipper still hangs under spotlights at Washington’s Conibear Center, the symbol of UW’s greatest triumph.

The rest of the story is about the athletes that rowed the Husky Clipper in order to juxtapose their situation versus the coddled athletes of my generation. Time and space doesn’t permit me to mention all eight boys and their coxswain, so I’ll write about one who was typical of the gold medal crew: Joe Rantz.

Joe was born in 1914. He had one brother who was 15 years older. Joe’s mother died of throat cancer when he was four. The brother left for university and the father to Canada to find work. Joe was put all alone (at four!) on a train to Pennsylvania where an aunt was to look after him. A year later he was again put on a cross country train to return to Washington. His father had remarried, returned to Washington, and built a home. When he was nine, the step mother said she didn’t want to care for him any longer, so his father made a deal for Joe to sleep at the school house in exchange for Joe chopping wood to keep the building warm. To eat he had to trudge down to a Cookhouse and serve miners and loggers. Afterward, he would climb back to the school house, chop wood, and study. It turned out that he was a good student and (fortunately) self-motivated.

At ten, he was brought home to another house his father only half-finished. As a young teen the step-mother wanted to move on, but not with Joe. They left him in the house alone with little food. To exist he took jobs chopping and hauling lumber, digging ditches, stealing and reselling illegal booze, and poaching fish for sustenance and resale. He grew to six-three and was strong as an ox. As a student he excelled.

His brother took him in, and had him spend his senior year at a nearby high school. He also helped Joe enter UW, where Al Ulbrickson got him interested in rowing. Tall, strong athletes are required for the sport.

There were no scholarships. Joe had to work during the school year, and in the summer just to make tuition from semester-to-semester. For four years he stayed in the basement of a YMCA. He earned a bachelor of science in chemical engineering.

The above is just a brief synopsis of one boy’s trial. To read more about Joe and the boys: Gordon Adam, Chuck Day, Don Hume, George “Shorty” Hunt, Jim “Stub” McMillan, Bob Moch (coxswain), Roger Morris, and John White; pick up THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown.

Thanks to my son, Geof, for turning me on to such a rousing, can-do, riveting story.

Submitted by: Gene Myers

Related Articles - Washington, UW, crew, eights with coxswain, 1936 Olympic Games, Al Ulbrickson, Joe Rantz, THE BOYS IN THE BOAT,

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