Rowing: “It’s Not a Game. Basically, It’s Hard Work”

John B. Kelly III, part of Philadelphia sculling royalty, was on the Charles River Saturday to memorialize his legendary Harvard coach, Harry Parker.

In September 1978, when John B. Kelly III exited the building where he had registered for classes before his freshman year at Harvard, he found two men waiting for him. Legendary Crimson rowing coach Harry Parker and his freshman team lieutenant stationed themselves at the exit every fall, looking for prospects. If someone was taller than six feet, Parker made his pitch. Kelly, who stood a couple inches over the standard, was an obvious target.

The trouble was, Kelly had planned on fencing at Harvard. He was a modern pentathlete (running, swimming, shooting, equestrian, fencing) and needed to improve his swordsmanship, Imagine that, a Kelly man — yes, those Kellys — not in a boat. The grandson of three-time gold medalist Jack Kelly and son of a four-time Olympian hadn’t spent any of his formative years in Philadelphia pulling an oar on the Schuylkill.

“My dad taught me to row, but I went to high school at Penn Charter, and it didn’t have a rowing program,” Kelly says.

Kelly turned down Parker’s invitation, but changed his mind at Thanksgiving. Parker told the freshman to get through his first-term exams and then come out for the team.

“My first day in the boathouse, I realized that it was where I was supposed to be,” Kelly says.

Kelly spent much of the next four years on the Charles River, first on the freshman team and then as a member of the Crimson’s varsity eight. He was a captain in 1982, his senior year and was part of the boat that still has the record for the largest come-from-behind victory in the Harvard-Yale Regatta, which has been staged for 162 years.

Saturday, Kelly was one of more than 200 former Harvard and Olympic rowers – and one of 45 former captains – who returned to campus for a memorial service that celebrated Parker, who died in June at 77 of myelodisplastic syndrome, a blood disorder. Kelly also took part in a ceremonial row on the Charles that included perhaps the greatest oarsman of all time, who only flew halfway around the world to pay his respects to Parker.

“It was neat to be there,” Kelly says. “I got to row with guys from the 1979 and ’80 boats. As we came by the boathouse, we stepped it up and did a power 20 [an all-out pull of 20 strokes]. We had to do that.”

Since collegiate rowing is not celebrated like football and basketball, it’s understandable that many people don’t know about Parker. Suffice it to say that he was one of the most influential people in the history of American rowing. Parker rowed in the ’60 Olympics and took fifth in the single scull. During his 51 years directing the Harvard program, his boats won eight national championships, boasted 20 undefeated seasons – including in 2013, which was completed less than two weeks before Parker died – and posted a 44-7 record against Yale. He coached several Olympic teams and directed crews to silver (’72 men’s eight with coxswain) and bronze (’76 women’s eight with cox) medals.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he rowed under Joe Burk, Parker was a taciturn man whose expertise as a coach came from his ability to pick the right people for his boats. He then convinced the rowers that because he had assembled them, they couldn’t help but win, if they put in the work and endured the pain. Kelly likens him to Hall of Fame Penn football coach George Munger, whose high personal standards inspired his charges to expend extra effort in pursuit of victory.

“You never wanted to disappoint Mr. Munger,” says Kelly, who came to know the coach while at Camp Tecumseh. “Harry had the same thing. He did it in a quiet way, but the high expectations he had for himself, and the way he carried himself made you want to emulate him by behaving the right way.”

Kelly estimates that Parker gave him “20 comments” during his four years of rowing. That was why Saturday’s service, held at Harvard’s Memorial Church, was so enjoyable. Parker’s children spoke about their father, and through their comments “The Sphinx,” as some rowers called him, became a more complete man, instead of being solely the stern coach who once said of rowing, “It’s not a game. Basically, it’s hard work.”

“He was a great guy, but none of the rowers got to know him that well personally,” Kelly says. “The nicest thing about the memorial service was that his family members participated and enabled us to see a more multifaceted aspect of him. It was pretty cool to see him as a family man and a father. It gave us a deeper appreciation for him.”

It’s hard to imagine anybody could have a deeper admiration for Parker than legendary Soviet rower Vyacheslav Ivanov, who won gold medals in the single scull in the 1956, ’60 and ’64 Olympics. Ivanov flew in for the service and rowed in a double with Don Spero, his American rival in the ’64 Games. Ivanov was feted at a dinner last Thursday at the Vesper Boathouse, the same day he went to visit the gravesite of John B. Kelly Jr., against whom Ivanov competed in 1956. During the dinner, Kelly marveled at footage of the then-18-year-old Soviet’s gold-medal performance in ’56.

“He rowed through [Aussie] Stuart McKenzie and my dad in the gold-medal race,” Kelly says. “I have never seen anybody move on other boats like that. I don’t know how he had the cardiovascular base to do that at 18.”

Kelly still gets onto the river at least once a week, rowing out of Vesper. “I don’t have much of a choice,” he says of the club with which his grandfather was affiliated. But neither of his children, Katherine (25) or Nicholas (21), took to the sport. Kelly taught them to row, but they “chose to do other things,” according to Kelly. That’s not such a bad thing.

“Because rowing is such a multi-generational thing in our family, there would be expectations for them, and that would be unfair for other people to do, although I do understand that,” Kelly says. “It’s not great for the kids to have to do that.”

Perhaps if they had confronted Harry Parker as college freshmen, things might have been different.


• Forget about Ruben Amaro’s role in the Phillies’ rapid collapse. We know that he is not capable of building a contender, and his teary good-bye to Charlie Manuel last week was just plain insulting to those who recognized his substantial responsibility for the Phils’ poor play. The person to focus upon over the next two years is David Montgomery, who has played an equally large role in the deterioration of the franchise and the bankrupting of its future. If Montgomery continues to back Amaro as he makes poor judgments, and continues to lavish countless millions on players clearly on the downsides of their careers, then the Phillies ownership group should consider installing a new president, as well as a new GM.