As flotillas go this one wasn’t nearly as large as the Spanish Armada but over half a century it had acquired more precious booty — Olympic medals, silver loving cups, and enough Yale shirts to enrobe the Anderson Bridge.
Five decades of Harvard oarsmen returned to the Charles on Saturday morning for a ceremonial row past Newell Boathouse to pay homage to Harry Parker, their master and commander who died in June after a final triumphant season.
“It is a wonder,” marveled Charley Butt, the longtime lightweight coach who’ll succeed Parker as only the ninth director of the heavyweight program since 1852. “It is a testament to the guy. I can’t imagine half a century coming back like this. This is such a compelling experience.”
Nearly 40 eights, fours, quads, doubles, and singles formed an upstream procession past the imposing Victorian edifice where Parker had occupied a tiny corner office since 1960. Most were amalgams of his varsity crews, who’d reclaimed their crimson jerseys from attics and basements. But the lightweights were there, too, led by the 1971 “Superboat,” as well as several Radcliffe boats and a four from the Winsor School stroked by Parker’s daughter Abigail, who’ll enroll at the college this month. “It’s a reunion of the tribe,” observed Steve Brooks, who stroked the Harvard boat at the 1968 Olympics. “We’re back together.”
They came together, as well, in Sydney and London, where other Crimson rowers took to the water for a salute.
There was a five-ringed reunion as well. Vyacheslav Ivanov, the legendary Soviet sculler who won three gold medals in the single and competed against Parker in the 1960 Olympic final, flew in from Moscow and paddled out in a double with Don Spero, his American rival in 1964. “I was invited, and I wanted to honor Harry,” the 75-year-old Ivanov said through a translator.
Jim Dietz, the Northeastern grad who sculled in two Games, was back on the river. So was the 1980 Olympic eight that Parker coached. “This is the way it should be,” remarked Ted Nash, who was Parker’s Rome teammate and later his coaching rival at Penn. “This is what it’s all about for all of us.”
All but a handful of Parker’s 51 captains were present, some of them serving as ushers at the afternoon service at Memorial Church in the Yard, where Henley blazers were the uniform of the day. “The Mister Chips model, where you come back to school 50 years later and he’s still teaching, that’s gone away,” said John MacEachern, the 1981 captain.
When his former oarsmen talked about Parker, it was with equal parts affection, admiration, and awe. “He was like Father Guido Sarducci, who had the five-minute university,” said Dave Fellows, who captained the unbeaten 1974 Rude & Smooth boat. “Harry taught you about yourself. Isn’t that the purpose of a liberal arts college?”
A five-minute chat was a filibuster from the man they called The Sphinx. “If there was a prize for ratio of influence to words spoken, that’s a horizon job for Harry,” reckoned Blair Brooks, who captained the unbeaten 1975 R&S edition.
Parker never gave a pep talk. “There was no strangling of bulldogs,” said Jim Tew, the 1966 captain. It’s their activity, Parker would say. If it’s not important to them, I can’t make it important.
His oarsmen were so driven, so competitive that Parker didn’t need to nudge them. As the procession was coming to an end, three of his more recent varsities broke off to race each other to the bridge.
Bragging rights at Newell are eternal and his former oarsmen still ponder the one answer that Parker took to the grave: Who’s the fairest of us all? “We know the answer,” Fellows said puckishly, pointing to a 1974 flag hanging from a crepe-adorned pole next to an enormous “Thank you, Harry” banner. “Why else would Harry put our photo on the wall?”
Parker, a ferocious competitor not above hornswoggling his sons at Monopoly, loved hard-core racers, which is why he cherished this year’s unbeaten varsity, which sent him out a winner with a six-length swamping of Yale in the four-miler. He had barely a fortnight to live that weekend but he hadn’t announced his retirement. When the 1980 crew came back for a reunion row, Parker went out on the water with them, orchestrating a race with his daughter stroking the winning boat, and then had lunch. “He said, nice to see you,” Dick Cashin said. “He never said goodbye.”
Two days later Parker slipped out of consciousness and was ferried across the Styx, his final river. On Thursday his ashes were scattered at Red Top, his crew’s age-old training camp on the Thames in New London. On Saturday came the final gathering of crimson-hued hundreds at Newell, from whose bays Parker loved to launch golf balls toward Memorial Drive. “How many people could cause something like this to happen?” mused Bob Jaugstetter, the 1980 Olympic coxswain. “A pope, maybe.”
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.