Of all the sports that can be said to be close to Jewish hearts — from baseball to basketball to the overly aggressive style of mah jongg your grandmother enjoyed — rowing might be at the bottom of the list.
This is not because Jewish people don’t row — they do. But in Philadelphia, in particular, the sport tends to have patrician connotations of the Social Register, debutante balls, the Kelly clan and scenes of local life plucked from The Philadelphia Story.
Part of Dotty Brown’s mission with her new book, Boathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing, out next month from Temple University Press, is to challenge stereotypes about rowing and preconceived notions of the city’s boathouse culture.
“I want Philadelphians to feel that Boathouse Row is accessible to them,” said the Jewish Brown, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and editor who rows with the Vesper Boat Club. “They can row. They can join a boathouse. It doesn’t have to be so elitist and alien to them.”
Her book — a beautifully designed hardbound volume filled with fascinating archival photos and lively writing — strips away Boathouse Row’s facade by delving into the history of the city’s boathouses, starting in the 1800s, when rowing was the most popular spectator sport.
Brown then examines the boathouse culture’s evolution through the lenses of some of Philadelphia’s most prominent figures: artist Thomas Eakins, who immortalized the early rowing scene in so many of his paintings; Frank Furness, the legendary architect who designed Boathouse Row’s Undine Barge Club; John B. Kelly, the rowing patron and father of Olympic rower John B. Kelly Jr., both of whom championed rowing in Philadelphia; coaches Tom Curran and Joe Burk, who elevated local collegiate rowing; athlete Ernestine Bayer, who pioneered women’s acceptance into the sport; and Edward T. Stotesbury, the father of high school rowing in the area.
Each of these figures anchors a chapter that tells new and old stories about rowing on the river. The Stotesbury chapter, for instance, examines the present-day attempt to diversify the sport and broaden access by bringing in kids from public schools.
Then there’s the chapter on the “Vesper Eight,” a Bad News Bears-style crew of Philadelphia underdogs who, against all odds, went all the way to the Summer Olympics in 1964 — and won. It’s a story any Philadelphia sports fan can relate to, and it features an unlikely pair of coaches: Allen Rosenberg, an American Jew, and Dietrich Rose, a German born in 1936 who was just a bit too young to join Hitler Youth (though he did have a uniform).
Somehow, these two men worked together to inspire and coalesce a Vesper Boat Club team that was as motley as they come, from a 46-year-old Hungarian refugee to a pair of skirt-chasing, trash-talking brothers in their 20s.
Brown writes, “As for tension between the Jew and the German — if it existed at any level, the two did not show it. Said [team member] Emory [Clark], ‘You had Rosenberg and Rose as the coaching team. And I swear you would not be interviewing us right now, this all would not have happened, had those two not formed such a perfect partnership.”
While that story is a surprising one, Brown said the biggest surprise for her in researching the book “was how long it took for women to be able to row.”
In the 19th century, Brown explained, rowing was seen as a manly sport, one that was harmful to women. The first girls rowing club was formed in 1938; women weren’t allowed to row in the Olympics until 1976.
“Women today basically outnumber male rowers because of Title IX,” said Brown. “It’s been a revolution.”
For Brown, writing the book on Boathouse Row has been something of an “unretirement project,” as she puts it — one that was brought to her in a moment when she wasn’t expecting it. She’s glad she decided to do it.
“It’s been a labor of love for me and one I didn’t anticipate,” she said. “I want to break down the barrier of what Boathouse Row is. I’m hoping people feel it’s more a part of their city.”
Brown will be signing copies of her book at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta on Oct. 29 and 30, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., under the big tent on Kelly Drive. For more of Brown’s appearances and further information about Boathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing, go to boathouserowthebook.com.
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