Harry Parker, 77, longtime dean of US crew coaches
Harry Parker occupied the same upstairs corner of Newell Boathouse for more than a half-century, guiding generations of Harvard’s heavyweight oarsmen to national championships, silver loving cups, and showcases full of trophies and medals.
But none of his racers, from Olympic stars to fourth-boat hammers, called him coach. He always was Harry, no last name necessary, on the Charles River or wherever rowers gathered around the country and beyond.
Mr. Parker, who was born in Fitchburg and resided in Winchester, was 77 when he died of cancer Tuesday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
A paragon of American collegiate sports, he coached for 51 years at the same institution while producing championship boats throughout his career.
“It’s remarkable,” observed Yale coach Steve Gladstone, Mr. Parker’s former lightweight counterpart at Harvard whose career at five colleges covers more than four decades. “Harry’s tenure at Harvard will be an absolute landmark.”
Mr. Parker’s legacy of victory was similarly impressive. His Crimson varsities collected 16 official and unofficial national titles and 24 Eastern Sprints crowns, completed 22 undefeated regular seasons, and won more than a dozen times at the Henley Royal Regatta, one of the amateur sport’s most prestigious events. They were the last college crew to compete in the Olympics, reaching the 1968 final in Mexico City. Mr. Parker also directed the 1972 US Olympic men’s eight that won the silver medal and the 1976 women’s eight that earned bronze.
While his final season had been viewed as a rebuilding year, the Crimson went undefeated in cup races, won the Sprints, and beat Yale in their traditional 4-miler by the biggest margin in eight years. Next week, four men from the varsity will compete on the River Thames at Henley, where the eight last year won the Ladies Plate.
“The last little bit of Harry’s legacy,” said captain James O’Connor, “is a bit of an adventure overseas.”
A Navy veteran, Mr. Parker had been freshman coach for only two years when his predecessor, Harvey Love, died of a heart attack in winter 1963.
While Harvard had enjoyed success on the water for more than a century, Mr. Parker quickly brought the program to a global level of success. His 1964 boat provided the coxed four for the Olympic team in Tokyo and one of his oarsmen won a bronze medal in the uncoxed boat.
His 1965 varsity, which won the Lucerne regatta in Switzerland, was labeled “The World’s Best Crew” by Sports Illustrated.
Imagination and innovation were his trademarks, as was his ability to evolve with his sport. His 1968 crew included only one man who had rowed previously. His 2012 varsity was peopled by experienced recruits from Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.
“Harry managed to find a way to get the most from people on a consistent basis,” said Charley Butt, who was Mr. Parker’s lightweight counterpart at Harvard for 27 years. “There was no one way, no one look with him.”
Mr. Parker’s receptivity to unconventional approaches extended to the personalities of his oarsmen. “People say Harry adapted to different people but I think it was his accepting them,” said Paul Hoffman, who coxed the 1968 and 1972 Olympic eights. “He looked for the qualities that he respected and whether they came in a blue, a pink, or an orange wrapper didn’t matter to him. In that sense, he was tremendously fair.”
When members of the 1968 boat were labeled by critics as long-haired radicals for their support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights led by African-American sociology professor Harry Edwards, Mr. Parker said he admired their “courage and sincerity.”
The varsities that won national titles in 1974 and 1975, dubbed “Rude and Smooth,” were notorious for their hijinks on and off the water. “Harry carried on stoically all the way through,” said Alan Shealy, who stroked those boats and whose seatmates puckishly dubbed their coach “Weird Harold.”
“Of course,” Shealy said, “had we been rude and not undefeated, it might have made a difference.”
Mr. Parker, who loved aggressive racers, was a fierce competitor himself. After rowing with the University of Pennsylvania varsity that won the 1955 Grand Challenge Cup at Henley, he switched to sculling and finished fifth in the 1960 Olympics. Mr. Parker raced frequently in the Head of the Charles Regatta, once as the “revived” T. Lazarus, and last year rowed a double with his daughter Abigail of Winchester, who will enter Harvard in September. He also was an avid golfer and cross-country skier who considered sub-zero conditions “good fun.”
Each December, Mr. Parker took on his own oarsmen in the Newell Triathlon, which included 7,500 meters on an ergometer, a 4.2-mile run, and a sprint up and down all of Harvard Stadium’s concrete steps.
“The guy’s 66 years old and he’s still going out there and battling it out,’’ Artour Samsonov, a Russian stroke who came to Harvard because of Mr. Parker, told the Globe in 2002.
Near the end of the 2011 season, Mr. Parker was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of blood cancer that he understood would be fatal and which ultimately led to leukemia.
“You don’t outlive it, but that’s what it is,” he told the Globe at the time.
Yet Mr. Parker was resolute about continuing to tutor his crew on the water while associate head coach Bill Manning took over boathouse operations. “Why not?” Mr. Parker asked, adding that retirement “never occurred to me, quite frankly.”
His oarsmen couldn’t imagine the coaching launch without Mr. Parker, who had become known affectionately as “Old Man River” at the end of the megaphone.
“Harry’s one of those figures who’s a little larger than life,” Nick Jordan said after the 2011 season. “You don’t think anything can bring him down. You hear the stories from the last 50 years, that he’s a perpetual force at Newell, that he’s never going to leave.”
Harvard will announce a service for Mr. Parker, who in addition to his daughter, Abigail, leaves his wife, Kathryn Keeler of Winchester; two sons from a first marriage that ended in divorce, George of Zionsville, Ind., and David of Lexington; a sister, Nancy of Panama City, Fla.; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Parker’s varsity produced another stellar season in 2012, with triumphs at the Head and Henley at either end. This year, when it became obvious that his tenure was near its end, preparations were made to announce his retirement during the summer.
But despite his worsening physical condition, Mr. Parker insisted on seeing out the spring at the helm with a final duel against Yale on the 50th anniversary of his first victory on the Thames.
“A lesser man would not have wanted to be out there,” said Dr. Richard Stone, director of the adult acute leukemia program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “It’s not shocking given the character of the man, but it’s shocking given the nature of the disease.”
“He wanted to do it his way,” Keeler said. “Harry never changed that modus operandi.”
With dozens of Mr. Parker’s former rowers on hand, Harvard swept the regatta for the sixth straight year.
“To be able to race the way we did was immensely satisfying to Harry,” said Manning. “He was happy to have developed a crew that was that superior and that could show it on race day.”