Harry Parker, the legendary Harvard heavyweight crew coach who built an ongoing dynasty on the Charles River that covered half a century, died at 77 Tuesday afternoon after a two-year battle with cancer, barely a fortnight after his varsity completed an unbeaten regular season by swamping archrival Yale.
“Harry Parker has been one of the nation’s iconic coaches and educators,” athletic director Bob Scalise said in a statement. “He has touched the lives and has influenced countless Harvard oarsmen over the years.”
Universally acknowledged as the dean of America’s rowing coaches, Parker was renowned not only for his unparalleled longevity but also for his extraordinary success. His boats won 16 official and unofficial national titles and 24 Eastern Sprints crowns and had 22 unbeaten regular seasons in his 51 years at the helm.
Parker, a world-class sculler who finished fifth in the 1960 Olympics, was a renowned innovator whose legacy was global. His 1965 boat was proclaimed “The World’s Best Crew” by Sports Illustrated, which featured Parker on the cover. His 1968 Crimson varsity reached the Olympic final in Mexico City and Parker coached both the 1972 US men’s eight that won the silver medal in Munich and the 1976 women’s eight that earned the bronze in Montreal.
Parker also directed the 1980 US men’s eight that was kept home from Moscow by the Carter Administration’s boycott of the Games. Last Sunday Parker was back on the Charles for that team’s reunion row, driving the launch with wife Kathy while their daughter Abigail, who will enter Harvard this fall, stroked one of the boats.
Parker, who was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a form of blood cancer, in June 2011, had been determined to coach for as long as he could, scheduling treatments at the Dana-Farber Institute around practices. “It’s very clear that Harry’s in charge,” associate head coach Bill Manning said that summer. “He’s running the show.”
With Parker still behind the megaphone, the Crimson put together superb campaigns in each of his final two years. In the fall of 2011 they won the championship eights event at the Head of the Charles Regatta for the first time in 34 years, then capped the spring season by claiming the Ladies Plate at the Henley Royal Regatta, coming from behind to win by a foot.
This season Harvard reclaimed the Sprints title, finished second to Washington at the IRA national championships, and beat Yale by six lengths in their four-miler in New London to finish off their sixth consecutive sweep of the country’s oldest intercollegiate sporting event. “It was a present,” proclaimed Parker, whose career record against the Bulldogs was 44-7.
Parker’s oarsmen, past and present, were aware that he almost certainly would not live to see another season. So many of them, including the entire 1968 boat, were on hand at the Red Top headquarters on the Thames for his final triumph. “Today it was for 10 people,” captain James O’Connor said amid a champagne celebration after the race. “For us and for Harry.”
Besides his wife and daughter, Parker leaves sons George and David as well as hundreds of oarsmen. Harvard will hold a memorial service for him later this summer.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.