by Duvall Hecht
Act I: Dan Aldrich
In 1952, when I was a senior at Stanford, the Western Sprints were held on the north Lido Channel. We didn’t win the race, but it was the nicest of water I had ever rowed on. “Someday,” I thought, “there will be a collegiate crew here and it will be great!”
Fast forward 12 years to 1964. UCI was a still a bean field, though the first bulldozers were beginning their work, and the new chancellor, Dan Aldrich, had set up his office in a temporary building on what would soon be the campus.
A friend invited me to a Cal Alumni event, where Dan spoke, and where I met him. He knew the value of athletics and spoke about their importance at this new branch of the UC. A few days later I called to ask for an appointment to talk about crew.
Dan was a very impressive man – big, ruggedly handsome, outgoing, perhaps in his mid-40s. At Brown University he had been a track and field athlete – discus, shot put and javelin – and then served in the Navy during WWII. He was Chancellor at UC Riverside before coming to UCI. At our meeting, Dan patiently heard me out. He told me a number of others had suggested crew at UCI, thanked me for my interest, and sent me on my way. I thought, “Well, that’s it. I’ve had my 30 minutes.”
A couple of weeks later, after a Friday business trip to San Francisco, I was at SFO waiting for my flight home. Those were the days when you walked across the tarmac out to the plane. Dan Aldrich was the furthest thing from my mind when I looked up and saw him a little way ahead of me, headed for the same airplane. I put on some speed, caught up, reintroduced myself – and sat down next to him for an uninterrupted hour and a half.
He was returning from a meeting at Cal, where he had given a presentation to the Trustees. He had a beautiful oversize portfolio, full color renderings, bound in Morocco leather, one for each trustee. Dan let me examine his copy. I thought, “Wow! So that’s how the big boys do it!”
To be polite, Dan asked if I had any further thoughts on the rowing program at UCI. He probably regretted it, because it opened the floodgates. An hour later, as we stepped off the airplane, Dan, probably thinking he was at last getting rid of me, said, “Well, if you’re so sure that’s what should be done, why don’t you give me a written plan?” In other words, “Get out of my ear!” But he had just handed me the keys to the kingdom, because I saw what a big boy presentation looked like, right?
I spent the weekend on my faithful Remington typewriter and created a 25 page proposal, complete with drawings, lay out, boathouse dimensions, cost estimates, recruiting ideas, salaries for coaches and riggers, racing schedules and equipment needs, and put it in the nicest folder I could find – not quite Morocco, but close – and took it to him on Monday.
A few days later I met with him again. “That’s all you need?” he asked. “That and water and the young men, which won’t cost you anything,” I told him. “Okay,” he said, “you’re my guy.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “You go out and raise the money!” I staggered, so he smiled and added “Whatever you raise, I’ll match it.”
Now that’s a sporting proposition! So I called all my friends for help. I was asking for $1000 and needed 25 takers. The $1000 could be spread over three years. That sort of money meant something in 1964. In the event, when it was doubled by Dan’s contribution, it paid for the boathouse, three eights, a coaching launch and a training barge, plus 36 oars.
Act II: Bill Boland
The next problem was where to build the boathouse? Even in those days it was hard to find property on the water in Newport Beach. I tried half a dozen leads with no results. Then a friend who lived down here suggested I check out Shellmaker Island. He said the man who ran the dredging operation there was named Bill Boland.
Shellmaker Island got its start in the early 1900s when Redlands, Riverside and San Bernardino were the chicken and egg capitol of California – no thought then of “Inland Empire!” It was home to a modest dredging operation which scoured the bay for clamshells. The clamshells arrived at the island destined for the mill, still in operation in 1964. The mill reduced the clamshells to grit. Why?
Chickens require grit for their gizzards to grind up their feed. At the same time, if the grit provides calcium for the egg shell, you get a twofer. There is no better source for grit and calcium than ground-up clamshells. From there it is just a step to see what’s coming – the mill bagged the grit and labeled the bags “Shellmaker,” as in egg shells – thus, Shellmaker Island. When Bill Boland bought Shellmaker, Inc. after World War II, the migration from Los Angeles was just beginning. Every waterfront home wanted a dock, which of course required dredging. Bill’s was the only dredging operation on Newport harbor, and his work shifted from grit for chickens to docks for millionaires.
When I first met him, 1964, the island was completely wild. The mill, hardly ever used by this time, stood across a large open space from the four sheds that served as office, tool room, shop and storage room. The sheds were typical California construction – uninsulated bat and board – the roofs similarly constructed and covered with tar paper. For air-conditioning, you opened the windows, and for toilets, you used the outhouse. It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. You could hear the rain pound on the roof. It was heaven!
It was also an ecological paradise before ecological became an excuse to beat up on people. Old pumps, cables, pontoons, rusty pipes, crane extensions, decomposing rowboats that had served their time, lay off in the weeds and provided shelter for the bunnies. The irony is that with the transfer to Fish and Game and their Taj Mahal airplane hangar to house half a dozen cops and bureaucrats, the island became less hospitable to its critter population but better suited to the image DFG people have of themselves. However, that dismal event lay far in the future.
On my first visit, Bill Boland invited me into his office, which he shared with Johnny Jones, his bookkeeper. Johnny’s father drove the toilet truck that serviced the outhouse. Nobody gave themselves any airs. Informality was Bill’s style. He wore khakis, ankle boots, short sleeve shirt open at the neck, no jacket. He smiled, leaned back in his chair: “What can I do for you today?” Before I answered, I noticed half a dozen pictures behind him, all of the F4U, the gullwing Corsair, symbol of Marine Corps aviation during World War II. And there was Bill standing in the pictures with his squadron mates around him. “My God,” I thought, “I’m talking to a Marine pilot.” In 1964 I was still a weekend warrior with the Marines, and what’s more, I had flown the Corsair! This was made in heaven! (And it was about to get better!)
“Bill,” I said, “you were a Marine pilot! I am too!” “OK,” he said, “but you probably don’t have any time in the Corsair.” “Actually, I do – ten years ago, when I was at Cherry Point, Joe McPhail brought the Minneapolis reserve squadron there in Corsair’s and let me check out in one.” “Joe McPhail?” said Bill. “Joe was my wingman in the South Pacific!”
When we finally settled down to talk about what had brought me to Shellmaker Island, we were best friends. He showed me around the island and asked where I would like to put the boathouse. We walked the outlines of what would be our sublease.
As I got ready to leave, he said, “If I let you do this, can I get rid of you if I don’t like having you around?” And I said, “Sure, but will give you no reason not to like us.” And he said, “Okay. I’ll call you and let you know.”
The next day, Bill called to say that it was ours, but that he would need about a week for the lawyers to write up the agreement. Ten days later I picked it up for Dan Aldrich to sign, and took the autographed copy back to Bill. He took it to the Irvine Company, because they owned the island, which Bill leased from them.
The vice president to whom he handed the lease looked at it and said, “Bill! Don’t you know you need our permission before you make a sublease?” Bill said, “Sure I do. I was just afraid somebody would say no.”
“I was just afraid somebody would say no,” so Bill went ahead and did it anyway. Imagine trying that on a bureaucrat on the Coastal Commission or a timeserver at Fish and Game!
Bill helped us every step of the way. He built the boat racks in the boathouse. He put in water and electricity. He added the lighting. He brought the crane over to put up the flagpole. He dredged out our docking area. He bulldozed a level area for our parking. We had a 25 year honeymoon, then the Irvine Company gave the property to DFG, and the rest is history
Bill and I remained friends till the day he died. To look at him you wouldn’t think it, but he was a fine musician, a pianist. He had a Bosendorfer Grand which he gave a good workout every couple of weeks with a group of fellow musicians. He would fix dinner for everyone, the bourbon flowed freely, and they had music for dessert.
After the island was transferred to DFG, Bill moved to Petaluma and then to Inverness, where he retired. He built a house in the redwoods, halfway down a ravine where a creek flowed year- round. Steelhead came up it in the spring to spawn in the headwaters. As he grew older, he built a guesthouse to live in and, as he had no children and his idiot wife had left him, he gave the main house to his nephew. He loved living there, in the shade, in the cool, with his Bosendorfer and books for company.
Bitterness had no part of Bill. He always remembered the good. “I’ve had plenty of sunshine in my life,” he said, “and now I’m happy to be here where it’s cool and shady.” A year or two later his nephew’s wife came down to his house to give him the newspaper. He always enjoyed reading it with his morning coffee. The coffee was there, steaming in a mug by the window, and Bill was there too, stretched out on the floor. His work was over, and the UCI crew lost one of the best friends it ever had.
Act III: UCI Crew
When you strip it to its core, rowing is about the men, the water, the boats and the coaches. That’s it. You can have great circumstances for the flourishing of a crew, and you can have terrible, but the circumstances don’t make a great crew – you do. You can complain about anything and everything. It’s profitless. It is what it is.
When you put the boats in the water, when you go out on the bay at 5:00 AM, you can’t blame anybody or anything if you don’t do the best job you can. You flush all the negatives out of your mind, and as a coach you demand the men do the same. They learn that rowing, like life, is a game that’s won between the ears.
It can only be won by focusing, focusing totally, on the job at hand. That’s what every coach at UCI, and really every rowing coach in the country, tries to do and tries to teach. The young men who get that message, who stick around long enough to find the sublime unity in a boat that moves well, and who after four years of rolling out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and showing up to row in the dark in any kind of weather, who remember the crunch of ice on the dock under their bare feet – they know something about themselves that they didn’t know four years earlier.
What they know is that nobody will ever give them anything they can’t do. And that is a terrific lesson to learn early in life, knowing with absolute certainty that whatever gets thrown at you, you can handle it.
So, do I love rowing? Do I love coaching? Listen. I was nothing. When I entered Stanford as a sophomore transfer, I found that freshman and sophomores were required to take a PE class.
Rather than play badminton, I tried crew. I was in the third boat all year, and if there had been a fourth, I would’ve been in it. No chance I’d row my junior year.
That fall, sucking down a Lucky Strike on the third floor of the Zete house, someone yelled “Hey Dewey, there’s a guy down here to see you!” So I bounced downstairs, very cool with the Lucky in the side of my mouth, and there was my rowing coach, Jimmy Beggs. Even though I didn’t plan to row anymore, I liked Jimmy was sufficiently embarrassed that I tossed that cigarette in the fireplace. Of course Jimmy had seen it. He stood at the door for a long minute, looking at me. Then he said, “You know, I thought you might have some potential and that I’d ask you to come back out for crew. But now, I don’t think so.” He turned and walked away.
Well, it may have been child psychology, but nobody treats me that way! So I showed up and rowed as a junior. For the first time in my life I trained. I got the idea of what crew was about. Beggsie had been a coxswain at Yale before he came to Stanford as a graduate student in 1949. He had taken a pair-with-cox to the 1948 Olympic trials. They came in second, and Jimmy promised himself he would find another couple of oarsmen in 1952 and make it to Helsinki. In the fall of my senior year, he asked me if I would like to try it with him. He said I could choose who I wanted to row with. There was no doubt in my mind that it should be Jimmy Fifer.
Jimmy Beggs brought a brand-new Pocock pair down from Seattle in January, 1952. Fifer built us a dock at Redwood City. We rowed every morning in eights out of the Stanford boathouse at Palo Alto yacht harbor, afternoons at Redwood City with Jimmy Beggs. We began to move the boat pretty well.
In July we went East to the Olympic trials at Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Massachusetts. We had never raced before. After going through elimination heats, we came up against the pair from the US Naval Academy. They had won the Eastern sprints championships and were undefeated through their competitive season. In the final race, we beat them by about a foot. It took 15 minutes for the judges to develop the film – the longest 15 minutes of my life.
So we won the American championship and made the Olympic team, thus realizing our goal. In Helsinki, we were eliminated in the semi finals. Did I learn something from that? You bet I did! We set our goal to win the American championship, which we did. Then we went to the Olympic Games, where we had no further goal, and where we failed.
But amazingly – no, miraculously – four years later Fifer and I got an opportunity to row again, this time in a straight pair. Jimmy Beggs, who was then at Penn coaching freshman, agreed to coach us. He did such a good job that we won a gold-medal in Australia.
How could that be? We were the same two people, same height and weight, as we were four years earlier. The difference was all mental. There was only one thing in our minds, and that was to overcome the shame of having lost. The shame! Failing is a wonderful motivation, because you cannot live there.
When I got the opportunity to coach at Menlo JC in 1958, I was on fire to pass my experiences on to a new generation of oarsmen. And tonight, as I look out at everyone in this room and see people from the founding crew at UCI to the most recent oarsmen, I feel blessed and grateful to God to have been connected in a vital, visceral way to young men who took to heart the lessons of rowing and made of themselves more than otherwise they would ever have made, had they not discovered as oarsmen what was possible for them to give, to take, to endure.
I am grateful for having been given the great opportunity and privilege of helping to create the UCI rowing program five decades ago. Even more, I cherish my time on the water as a coach, where I have tried to share the vision I inherited and the lessons I learned from the four great coaches who taught me how boats should move over water.
I thank you for your support, and now turn over to a new generation responsibility for the next 50 years of UCI crew, confident that its best years lie ahead.