Daniel James Brown's story of the University of Washington 1936 Olympic champion crew, "The Boys in the Boat" (Viking), continues its long and surprising run on national bestseller lists.
The run is surprising because the book, published in early 2013, normally would not be expected to draw much of an audience outside rowing and University of Washington enthusiasts. The reason for the run, it would seem, is because it tells a story of dedication and mutual sacrifice — in which the good guys win — and because the Husky Olympians' achievement stands in such contrast to much taking place in modern-day sports and society.
Just in recent weeks national media have brought us modern-day college sports news that would have shocked the Depression-era Husky oarsmen.
First, the so-called Big Five college conferences, including the PAC-12, enacted new rules enabling their schools, including the University of Washington, to provide sharply increased financial aid to scholarship athletes, amounting to several thousand dollars per athlete per year, to meet a federally determined "actual cost of attendance." Smaller colleges, not in the Big Five conferences, felt themselves at a disadvantage but nonetheless joined a coalition of 32 Division I conferences, including the Big Five, vowing to defend benefits to college athletes against threats from lawsuits, Congress and efforts toward unionization of college athletes. Coincidentally, the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics headed by former UW President Mark Emmert, announced during the same period that it was investigating 20 of its member schools for academic fraud including grade-fixing, no-show classes and relaxed eligibility standards for scholarship athletes.
All of this comes at a time when college football fans, in particular, have become restive with major-conference policies, which have moved the game away from its traditions as a Saturday-afternoon contest attended by students, alumni and fans. Husky football fans, over the past couple seasons, have seen Husky Stadium renovated so as to generate further ticket and other revenues. The running track has been removed, stands lowered and moved closer to field level, high-ticket luxury boxes installed, and students moved from their traditional midfield to end-zone seats. Several home games annually have been moved from Saturday afternoon to weekday and Saturday-night times, which fit the conference TV schedule but make it difficult for out-of-town and younger fans to attend the games personally.
The 1930s were a difficult time for the United States. People were out of work and often hungry. High-school grads could not afford college. Most who did make it to college had to work during summers and school terms to stay there. This included varsity athletes, including Husky oarsmen whose sport demanded an all-out physical and emotional commitment. Several oarsmen worked on construction of Grand Coulee Dam.
The central character in "Boys in the Boat" is Joe Rantz, who rowed on the Olympic champion boat only after overcoming incredible odds against his ever attending and staying in college. His boat mates, too, were without silver spoons, being the sons of fishermen, loggers, and manual workers. Even the well off, in the 1930s, would be considered to be living modestly today.
Many of the characters in the book were still around or recently remembered during my own time at the UW (1951-5).
Al Ulbrickson was still the varsity crew coach. Stan Pocock, son of legendary boat-builderGeorge Pocock, was frosh coach.
As secretary of my college fraternity, Delta Upsilon, I recognized from the chapter rolls the names of Elmer and Ed Leader, an earlier Husky varsity crew coach, and Tom Bolles, frosh coach in the 1930s who would later become Harvard varsity coach. Post-Intelligencer sports editor Royal Brougham, who covered and promoted the Husky crew, was still around, as was George Varnell, a former Husky athlete who covered the oarsmen for the Seattle Times.
I had first-hand dealings with both Brougham and Varnell. As a Bellingham High School senior I wrote a weekly high-school sports column for the P-I, covering the area from Everett northward. I was told there would be a part-time job for me at the P-I sports department when I enrolled at the UW the following fall. When I reported for duty, however, Brougham had never heard of me and told me, "Get lost, kid." Several years later, working as a Times sports writer and editor, I dealt with Varnell on a regular basis. He was by then aging but the Times nonetheless sent him to cover out-of-town Husky football and basketball games. Part of my job was to listen to those games, on the sports-department radio, and to write accounts of them, putting Varnell's byline on them. Typically, Varnell would call in several hours later with accounts that bore little resemblance to those that were already in early-edition print bearing his name.
Travel in the 1930s was by train, within the United States, or by ship, which is how the Husky crew crossed the Atlantic on their way to the Berlin Olympics. Husky crew trips to Berkeley or to East Coast regattas were more than an overnight matter. Brougham, Varnell, and others accompanied the crew on the trips and reported their exploits. Crew, as well as college track and field, had big followings at the time. Network radio carried live accounts of the competitions. The New York Times and other national newspapers covered them as well.
By the time my generation arrived at the UW, football running back Hugh McElhenny and basketball center Bob Houbregs were the biggest sports names on campus. But members of the Husky crew still were treated with near reverence not only by students but also by their fellow Husky athletes. Everyone knew their training and workouts, sometimes in severe weather, were the most demanding among all sports. Individual crewmembers' achievements were subsumed within the overall performance of their boat.
Brown's story of the 1936 Olympic champions is told in great detail and builds to their dramatic triumph in front of Adolf Hitler and over a German crew wearing a Nazi swastika on their jerseys. (It was at those same Olympics that black American sprinter Jesse Owens also triumphed in sight of Hitler and his entourage). Brown recounts lovingly the later lives and reunions of the 1936 crewmen until the last, Roger Morris, departed in 2009. An enduring survivor, Brown notes, is The Husky Clipper, the Olympians' boat, which is displayed today in Conibear Shellhouse on the UW campus.
Amid the commercialization and sometime scandal of today's big-time athletics, it is refreshing to be reminded of the purity which once prevailed and still can be revived in sport. Not all of today's present and future athletes are taking selfies, promoting themselves on Facebook, or measuring their ultimate success in dollars. Many still play and compete for the joy of it.
One other thing: Every place and region has a special feeling to it that is not replicated elsewhere. Anyone from here, reading "The Boys in the Boat," will get flashes of recognition along the way. Yes, he or she will say, this is my place and these were my people.