A venerated television show used to tell us that New York City had “eight million stories.” Next weekend’s Head of the Charles, a truly signature Boston sports happening, has thousands. Here is one.
How about an eight that began rowing together 50 years ago still competing with six of its original members? Pretty cool, huh?
They are the men from Wesleyan, who as undergraduates revived a rowing program that had been dormant since the 1880s and who have been mainstays at the Head of the Charles for more than 20 years. Now, it just so happens I knew one of those guys way back when, at a time in his life when he was as likely to become an astronaut as a rower. Back for another Head of the Charles in the company of his old boat mates is Wally Murfit, Lawrenceville ’64 and Wesleyan ’68.
In some ways Wally Murfit is a classic rower, as outlined in such wonderful tomes as David Halberstam’s “The Amateurs” and Daniel James Brown’s phenomenal runaway best seller, “The Boys in the Boat.” No one springs out of the womb dreaming of becoming a champion rower.
When we knew each other at the Lawrenceville School, Wally was a conventionally oriented athlete, just not a particularly good one. “I aspired to play football, basketball, and baseball at Lawrenceville,” he recalls. “Got hurt every year in football [including one surgery] and wasn’t good enough to make varsity in any of the other sports.”
It was all very frustrating, and there remained a sports itch he had to scratch.
His grades were fine. He was going to find himself a good school. However . . .
“One of the reasons I went to a D3 school was that I wanted to be a college athlete,” Murfit explains. He was a starting center fielder on the freshman baseball team when, well, “I found I was pretty bored with baseball.” In his sophomore year he decided to join Wesleyan’s fledgling crew club, and as we so love to say, The Rest Is History. Welcome to the Head of the Charles.
As pioneers, Murfit and his friends have a sweet story to tell. Led by coach Phil Calhoun, the squad began with a borrowed boat from the Salisbury School. By 1967, they had it going pretty well, winning the New England Small College Championship and the Rusty Callow Memorial Regatta Cup.
“We went from zero — nothing, no equipment, no coach — to New England champs in three years.’’ Murfit proudly says.
The jackpot question for many of us is this, “Why?” Rowing doesn’t look like a lot of, you know, fun. There’s a whole lot of work put in for very little external glory.
“The physical performance is not like those other sports,” Murfit points out. “You don’t hit a home run or make a game-winning jump shot. It’s not a sport where every little different thing may come into play. You make a zillion strokes with the oar and they’re all pretty much the same. On the surface, it’s quite boring. You don’t need to be a great athlete. You need determination, grit, and a strong will to win. It’s a sport that attracts grinders. It’s a sport populated with people who have something to prove.”
All right, fine. Then what?
“It’s the satisfaction of working for a common objective,” Murfit continues. “There’s a bonding. It’s about the equipment, being out on the water, the friendship, the venues. It’s all hard to explain.”
Wesleyan first sent a four with cox to the Head of the Charles in 1966, so this year will mark a 50th appearance for a Wesleyan boat. Six of the eight young men who won that Rusty Callow Cup will be among this weekend’s eight. Sib Reppert, ’67; Davey Crockett, ’69; and the coxswain, Chuck Goldstein, ’69, are deceased.
The lineup: Harrison Knight (bow), Joe Kelly Hughes, Bill Nicholson, Wallace Murfit, Bill Svensk, Will Macoy, John Lipsky, Nelson Hamlin (stroke), George Bennum (coxswain).
Among them will be bankers, physicians, economists, insurance men, Navy Seals, and commercial real estate men. Still friends, still rowing.
They had a highlight moment together in 2006 when they went to the famed Henley Regatta on the Thames in London. They had tried to get there as undergraduates but couldn’t get the funding. “By 2006, the Brits were holding a Veterans Regatta the weekend after the Royal and we went,” Murfit explains. “We borrowed a boat from the Leander Boat Club [plus an oarsman and a cox] and we reached on the hallowed Thames. The boat was a rat. It broke in our first race and we were out . . . single elimination.”
Let the record show that even with the snapped strut on the bow rigger, there is photographic evidence to show they didn’t lose by much. Anyway, I’m sure the pubbing was all worth it.
Ah, yes, what about a coxswain? “It’s very important, and we have a good one,” Murfit says. “George Bennum. On the Charles, you’ve got to think about passing, turns, narrow bridges, and curves. You can’t go there without a good driver.”
Murfit marvels at the growth of the event. “When we first came in ’67, there were 440 rowers competing,” he says. “In 2014, when we last competed, there were 55 boats and 440 rowers in our Alumni Eight category alone.”
Yup, but only one of those boats was there the year the Red Sox beat the Twins on the last day to win the American League pennant. I am one Boston College Eagle who will be saying, “Go Wesleyan!” next weekend.