Harry Parker Boathouse

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Dedication for the dedicated

Harvard’s Parker man of the people

The new Harry Parker Boathouse in Brighton for Community Rowing, the largest public rowing organization in the US, is no ordinary boathouse because its namesake is no ordinary coach.

The new Harry Parker Boathouse in Brighton for Community Rowing, the largest public rowing organization in the US, is no ordinary boathouse because its namesake is no ordinary coach. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff Photo)

By Barbara Matson

Globe Staff

October 17, 2008

This is no ordinary boathouse. The new $15.6 million facility for Community Rowing, the largest public rowing organization in the United States, is an award-winning facility, its green design full of eco-friendly features and its expansive space stuffed with equipment and boats available to rowers of all ages and abilities.

“We don’t want the best people,” said CRI executive director Bruce Smith. “We want everybody.”

Yesterday, a dream came true for the organization when the Harry Parker Boathouse on Nonantum Road in Brighton was dedicated. The CRI boathouse is named in honor of the Harvard varsity crew coach because Parker is no ordinary coach.

Parker has been coaching at Harvard for 47 years and he has collected an astonishing boatload of accomplishments in a life on the river. He began his career as an athlete, rowing for the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a member of the eight that won the 1955 Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta. He was the United States single sculls champion in 1959 and 1960, won the Pan Am Games in 1959, and after winning the US Trials, placed fifth at the Rome Olympics.

Then he came to Harvard and really started churning things up. He has won more than 12 national championships with the Crimson, coached six Olympic teams, and helped get women’s rowing started in the US.

A full list of his accomplishments is available on the Harvard athletic department website, if you have an hour to spare, but the real power of his person is evident in the CRI’s new boathouse: Of the $14.5 million collected in the fund-raising campaign, close to 50 percent was donated by athletes who rowed for Parker at Harvard or on one of the US national or Olympic teams he coached.

“It is so fitting to have Harry’s name on this boathouse,” said Kurt Somerville, Olympic rower and chair of the Boathouse Campaign. “For Boston and for American rowing, Harry’s name is synonymous with the best that the sport has to offer.”

“It’s beyond exciting,” Parker said. “It’s a reflection of their regard for me but it’s more than that. It’s a reflection of their commitment to the sport as a whole. Really, it’s a pretty clear manifestation.”

Community Rowing was founded in 1985 by Olympic and national team rowers who wanted to provide access to the Charles, and to rowing, for everyone, particularly to young people and physically-challenged rowers. Parker, a Trustee of CRI, helped the organization get off the ground, and into the water, providing access to Harvard’s Weld Boathouse and the use of Harvard shells.

CRI started with nothing, just one rower – Howie Schmuck. When he arrived at Weld Boathouse to sign up that first year, CRI had the use of two Harvard eights. Schmuck was told he couldn’t row until he got seven more people. So he stood on Anderson Bridge with a sign until he got seven rowers. At CRI, Schmuck is known as Member No. 1.

CRI had 65 participants its first year, 400 the second. It moved to an MDC hockey rink on Nonantum Road, using the building to house shells for the eight months of the year there was no ice. The group held what CRI cofounder Tiff Wood called a “barn-raising,” one frantic weekend to construct a wood frame boathouse in an adjacent field. All the while, despite the makeshift quarters, the rowing programs at CRI thrived; today, the nonprofit offers 30 programs and serves more than 1,500 people.

That is the sport of rowing Parker always envisioned.

“This is the sport coming full circle,” he said. “When rowing in the US first started, in the 1840s and 1850s, it was everyman’s sport. It was community-based, with small, local clubs throughout the East. This brings us back to that time.”

Parker noted that rowing dropped behind as other sports – football, baseball, basketball – gained in popularity, boosted by their inclusion in high school sports programs. Rowing programs required water and a boat and both were difficult for schools and colleges to find. The creation of the Head of the Charles Regatta, a public event, and the formation of CRI revived the sport.

“CRI really set the example for other cities of what could be done,” said Parker, “particularly with this boathouse, which is setting a new standard.”

The Harry Parker Boathouse is perched on the cutting edge of both the sport and green architecture.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that this boathouse breaks the mold,” said Somerville. “All future boathouses will be measured against this.”

The Harry Parker Boathouse has a sculling pavilion, space for 170 rowing shells, locker rooms, a weight room, and training space. It includes a classroom for CRI’s G-ROW (Girls Row) program, an after-school rowing and academic support program for 200 girls from the inner city. It is a sustainable building, its walls constructed from wooden panels that breathe; they hang on hinges and change position with the season, allowing air and light into the building.

Cameron Winklevoss, a 2008 US Olympian who, along with his brother Tyler, rowed in an undefeated eight for Parker during his senior year at Harvard, said the coach’s dedication was a model for his athletes.

“One of the things I found astounding about him is how passionate he still is about the sport,” said Winklevoss. “He has never wavered in his passion for the sport and for bringing the best out of his athletes. If anything, it seems like he’s more into it. There’s no complacency in the boathouse.”

Parker was a little awestruck standing outside his namesake boathouse last night, but not so much that he forgot that he was missing practice.

“My crew just went by,” he said, looking toward the Charles. He is 74, but Parker said it is too early to pick out the highlights of his career: He’s still in the middle of it.