Write Team: ‘The Boys in the Boat,’ on the Illinois

Robert Cotner, Write Team

On our occasional visits to Ottawa to visit family, I used to visit Rich Meyers, regional superintendent of La Salle County schools, in his office in the La Salle County Courthouse.

I never left his office without teasing him about creating a rowing program in high schools that bordered the Illinois River flowing south of the courthouse.

I recently delighted in seeing Meyers again at a social gathering in Seneca, and he reminded me of those visits and our conversations about rowing.

This remembrance was brought to mind with remarkable emphasis as I finished reading Daniel James Brown’s book “The Boys in the Boat.”

This book ranks in my reading experience of 88 years as the best book I have ever read.

It celebrates the sport of rowing, which has its origins in Medieval England among college rowers. It could serve as a handbook for coaches of this sport, which may be the most physically and intellectually arduous sport in existence.

Brown introduces us to Joe Rantz, who is abandoned by his family as a child in Sequim, Washington, and is the hero of the book. Through his remarkable courage, intellect and determination, and with the assistance of his older brother, a teacher at a nearby high school, Joe graduates with honors from high school and finds his way into the rowing program at the University of Washington in 1934.

Self-conscious of his poverty – he wears the same sweater day after day among boys with pressed trousers and polished shoes – he finds a place among the nine members of the university’s freshman rowing team.

In 1934, they win the Westcoast championship against their arch rival, the University of California at Berkley, and the Eastern championship against Harvard, Yale, West Point and others at Poughkeepsie, New York.

This rowing team would win every race through the Berlin Olympics in 1936. It is a compelling story about the boys, their remarkable coach and the history of their competition.

Al Ulbrickson is the 30-year-old rowing coach at the University of Washington whose keen eye and astute judgment identifies Joe as a potential athlete to participate on this team.

Also significant in the success of this team is George Pocock, an Englishman whose family crafted wooden rowing sculls in England at Eton College since the Medieval days.

Relocated in Vancouver, he is invited by Ulbrickson to establish his scull crafting business on the second floor of the rowing facility at the University of Washington and build his extraordinary sculls there.

His craftsmanship is so great that by 1936, 11 of the 12 competing eastern rowing teams are using his sculls in racing. His philosophies, which he shares with team members in conversations and which the author uses as preambles to chapters, lifts the book toward wisdom.

Brown gives us, as well, deep insights into the final years of the American Depression and the looming presence of World War II. He concludes the book with remarkable insight into the character of the American people and their role in the very best of human progress.

As a result of this splendid book, I renew my suggestion – no longer teasing – that La Salle County introduce a rowing program on the Illinois River. I nominate Rich Meyers as the honorary grand marshal of the first regatta on the Illinois.

Robert Cotner spent 25 years as an English teacher that include serving as Fulbright lecturer in English at the University of Liberia. He concluded his career as an executive at The Salvation Army and Shriners Children’s Hospital-Chicago. He now lives in Seneca.