My first crew coach, the man who taught me how to row, passed away last month at the age of 89. William Dunnell taught English and coached the novice crew at The Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts from 1963 to his retirement in 1994. I never had a class with him (I did have his brother Jake for Shakespeare’s Tragedies) but he taught me one of life’s lessons at an impressionable enough age that it became something of a mantra for the rest of my life and that was not to quit.
It is 1973 and I have to pick a spring sport. Tennis and baseball aren’t my thing, it was lacrosse I wanted to play but Brooks didn’t have a lacrosse team so of course I had to try to start one and I petitioned the athletic director to consider adding a new sport, rallied other students who wanted to join the team, researched the costs, etc. … but when the time came for a decision to be made there suddenly was no decision as the three crew coaches, Bill Dunnell among them, had conspired to kill my nascent lacrosse team through some treachery in the faculty lounge behind closed doors. Lacrosse would rob the crew coaches of bodies and nothing would be permitted to challenge rowing at Brooks. Or so I thought as the March deadline for declaring a mandatory sport approached. Tennis. Baseball. Or Crew. One of those three or I could work on the spring play in the campus theater or join the grounds crew raking leaves and picking up cigarette butts.
Brooks was a rowing school. It was part of the whole Boston Episcopalian “St. Grottlesex” prep school tradition of recreating the Eton-Harrow “public school” experience in the woods of Massachusetts. Groton. Buckingham Brown and Nichols, Belmont Academy, St. Mark’s, Nobles and Greenough. Middlesex. Those were the competition. Schools that used to reserve slots for the sons of illustrious alumni, schools known for their rigor and their tradition. Mandatory chapel six days a week. Three ordained Episcopalian ministers or rectors on the faculty (one of whom, Doug Peterson, was the head crew coach). A trip to Henley every five years. Alumni who had won Olympic medals or went on to Harvard, Yale or Penn to become “gods” in the insular world of rowing. Old coaches named “Ox” Kingsbury and boats named after them, dusty trophies, tattered pennants, rows of oars and plaques with the names of every rower in the history of the school and above all a general stoical cold shower ethos that comes with rowing on icy waters in New England in March in wooden boats that turn green boys into iron men.
I thought it was all a crock of shit. Unsure of what to do I asked my father, who had rowed in a club boat at Harvard Business School, what I should do. A former tennis star at Boston University, my old man knew I was utterly uncoordinated with zero finesse and was, gauging my maddening inability to handle algebra, definitely mentally handicapped. “Try rowing. At least you’ll be in a boat.”
First day and all my experience rowing around Cotuit Bay in an old wooden skiff with two ash oars meant zero once I climbed into an ancient Pocock four, taking care not to step on the veneer of western red cedar on the bottom of the boat where the words “No Step” were stenciled to warn doofuses like me from doing the truly stupid. I was put in with the other novices under the care of Bill Dunnell — a little man, a former coxswain at Harvard and Nobles and Greenough who wore a patched green army field coat and had his stop and his stroke watches hung around his neck on old laces from his hockey skates.
If any one on the faculty was the personification of the acerbic, mustachioed Mister Chips, it was Bill Dunnell. Eccentricities abounded. The perpetually grumpy mood that told indolent students to “go fry ice” or “if you have nothing to do, don’t do it here.” The very precise command of the English language befitting an English teacher: “Kindly refrain from expectorating in the public drinking water supply Mister Churbuck” when I spat up a chunk of lung after some horrible slog across the troubled waters of Lake Cochichewick. And the dogged persistence to repeat 10,000 times “Clean up that finish Mister Churbuck” that I thought was a case of pure personal torment for daring to challenge the Rowing Tradition with a lacrosse stick, but turned out to be the same thing every other coach that followed him would say 10,000 more times.
When I wrote The Book of Rowing I dedicated it to William Dunnell for teaching me how to row. What I really should have said, was “To William Dunnell for teaching me not to quit.”
He had the hardest coaching job — he taught the novices how to row in the cold chop of that windy lake. And more importantly, he sent them up onwards to the JV and Varsity boats where we would hopefully continue the heroic Brooks tradition of better oarsmanship. But first he had to stop us from quitting the single most difficult, maddening, exhausting and cold sport imaginable.
During my first season on the water with Mister Dunnel I eventually lost my temper after splitting my thumb open when it got pinched between the gunwale and the oar handle after the 2 man caught a crab.
Spattered with blood, with boils on the back of my thighs from the stinking perpetually wet rowing shorts, hands massacred by the rough oar handles, I did the sensible thing and I quit. I told the cox, and then I told another guy, and before lunchtime Bill Dunnell was stalking the halls of Brooks looking for me. I was twice as tall as he was but he dragged me into an empty classroom and with his crooked finger began jabbing me in the chest demanding answers.
“Listen Mister. You can go fry ice for all I care. Whether you like to row or not is up to you. But if you quit this then you will surely find it just as easy to quit the next hard thing and before long you’ll just be another quitter telling yourself it’s okay to be a quitter. So you go tell the others in your boat why you’re leaving them without a 3 man. and then go have fun on the work gang picking up cigarette butts with the other quitters.”
When I went back to Brooks to give him the first copy of the Book of Rowing he wept and blinked behind his glasses and said, “Damn you for making me cry Mister Churbuck but thank you for making me proud.”
Then we went together to the shore of the lake and quietly watched the races, him propped on his shooting stick, clicking the stroke watch and announcing the rating, never exhorting, never yelling, just being there with me.
I said to him before I left, the last time I ever saw him, “When I rowed against Harvard in New London my sophomore year I wanted to quit half way through when we were down a length and had another mile and a half to row.”
“Can’t quit in the middle of a race,” he said, watching the rowing through binoculars.
“Yeah, that’s what I remember you saying every single one of those remaining miserable strokes. Nobody quits rowing in the middle of a race. Nobody.”
“But did you ever clean up that finish?” He smiled under his moustache, never taking his eyes off the rowers approaching us, his attention with them in their agony as they sprinted for the finish.