NEW LONDON, Conn. — Harry Parker has been gone since last summer yet it seems that he never has left. “For the entire year any time a door swings open and I’m not looking, I expect him to walk in,” said Charley Butt, his colleague and successor.
Parker, who died of cancer at 77, was the dean of American rowing coaches and an inimitable institution at Harvard, where he directed the heavyweight crew program for 51 years and created a dynasty that endured across generations.
His absence will be most keenly felt here on Saturday afternoon when Harvard and Yale will have at each other for the 149th time in their 4-mile classic on the Thames River and Parker and his lantern jaw and seafarer’s beard will be missing from the Crimson launch for the first time since 1962.
“It touches you,” said Yale coach Steve Gladstone, who was Parker’s lightweight counterpart at Harvard for four years and his rival at Brown and California. “For me, there’s a little ache.”
The Thames was where Parker recorded his first significant victory as well as his final one barely a fortnight before he passed away, with another 42 in between. Red Top, Harvard’s time-treasured headquarters, is where his ashes are scattered. “I know that Harry was particularly happy down here,” said Butt. “He really enjoyed himself and I feel that.”
What Parker especially relished was the same-as-it-ever-was atmosphere at the rambling spread along the river and the traditions that have been passed along through the decades. “Coming here, it’s new for Charley and the freshmen,” observed captain Andrew Holmes, “but the same old thing for us.”
The croquet games on the lawn. The coxswains serving the meals, with the obligatory beets. The framed photos of former crews on the walls. The risque Red Top Rosie posters from the Sixties. The salty beef broth dished up in the afternoons. “It sort of acts like a late 18th-century version of Gatorade,” said senior Andrew Reed. The oarsmen inscribing their names on the clothes dressers in their rooms. The seniors, who usually miss Commencement for the national championships, receiving their diplomas at a special ceremony. The Saturday night banquet in the dining hall, almost always celebrating a varsity triumph and usually a sweep.
Butt, who perennially came down to Red Top, knew about the traditions and picked up a trove of additional lore from Parker, with whom he shared a cramped office on the second floor of Newell Boathouse for nearly three decades. “The time that I really spent down here was in conversations with Harry in the winter, his recollections,” Butt said.
Nothing, though, could have prepared him for arriving here this week and moving into the cottage that Parker had occupied for more than a half-century. “Not to sound trite,” Butt said, “but this is living a dream.” Succeeding Parker — known simply as Harry to everyone in the sport — was both a privilege and a charge. “There’s no replacing a charismatic figure,” mused Butt. “That would be a fool’s errand. You do it by carrying on in your own way.”
During his final two seasons, as Parker was battling blood cancer and still winning races, the After Harry, Who? question, once pondered theoretically, had to be addressed realistically. Butt was a natural candidate. He’d coached the lightweights for 28 years. He understood the Crimson culture, knew all the heavyweight oarsmen, and could navigate the Rivah blindfolded.
More important, much as Parker did, Butt had an extraordinary résumé. He’d won a national title rowing in a Rutgers four, had earned a silver medal at the world championships, and won at Henley. His Crimson lights had 25 winning seasons and collected nine Eastern Sprint titles and as many national crowns, the last two of them in a row. And Michelle Guerette, his sculling pupil, won the Olympic silver in Beijing.
Still, following Parker, whose crews had posted 22 unbeaten seasons and won 24 Sprint titles and 16 official and unofficial national crowns, figured to be a daunting assignment. “Someone said to me, what’s it like now that you’ve taken over?,” said Butt, who regards himself more as a collaborator and an advisor. “I said, ‘Takeover is an inappropriate word. It’s a continuation to the extent that I am capable.’ Without trying to be a charismatic figure like Harry, I’m carrying on as best I can, along with a group of outstanding oarsmen and coxswains.”
Harvard, which was the top college boat at last fall’s Head of the Charles Regatta, figured to be a top contender again this season with five men back, including Holmes at stroke. The question, which hadn’t been a question since the Kennedy Administration, was whether Harvard could win without Harry. “There have definitely been more eyes on us,” said cox Will Hakim.
The Crimson again went through the regular season unbeaten, dispatching the usual lineup of Browns and Princetons and Penns and Northeasterns. Then they cruised at the Sprints, just missing the course record while winning the new Harry Parker Cup with their eighth victory in a dozen years.
“For Charlie personally to win the Sprints was huge,” said Gladstone, whose unbeaten Bulldogs had gone in as top seed. “Otherwise there’d be these jump jockeys saying, well, I knew that was coming.”
Gladstone, who had two stints at Berkeley on either side of his time at Brown, dealt with a similar legacy bequeathed by Ky Ebright, who coached at Cal from 1924 through 1959, winning six national titles and three Olympic gold medals. “Ky was every bit as iconic as Harry,” said Gladstone, who has 11 IRA crowns on his résumé. “There’s a full life-sized statue of him in front of the boathouse.”
Parker may not yet have a bronze likeness but a memorial atop the bluff overlooking the Thames features his megaphone along with a few of his graven musings. The Harvard oarsmen gathered there this week to pay homage and observed 44 seconds of silence, one for each of Parker’s victories over Yale. “That was Charley’s idea,” said Holmes. “Harry’s obviously still in our minds.”
Butt’s lightweights claimed a couple of armfuls of Yale shirts in their annual Goldthwait Cup chase that includes Princeton, but this Yale race, which goes back to 1852, is like no other in America, both in distance and in significance. Give the Crimson oarsmen a choice of a national title or a victory in The Boat Race and it’s a no-brainer. “This is the biggest race of the year,” Butt said.
Its lore and legend are entrancing and Butt has been savoring his first Red Top sojourn with all of its handed-down customs and rituals. “Charley had pretty good knowledge, but he’d go up and ask for clarification,” said Reed, who serves as the varsity’s Master of Protocol, a post of ineffable significance in the boathouse. “He wants to preserve all the traditions.”
The most important of these is rowing back to the dock with a sweaty blue shirt in hand while a broom, signifying a sweep, is hoisted atop the flagpole. Harvard, which has won the 4-miler all but thrice since 1985, is favored to claim a seventh straight varsity triumph.
What matters to the Class of 2014, though, is that the Crimson win Friday’s combination boat race between the spares, which grants the victors the privilege of painting the finish-line rock across the river in their color, which has been crimson for eight years running.
“I’ve never seen a blue rock,” Holmes observed this week. “I don’t want to see a blue rock,” declared Hakim.John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.