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Joe Burk has been in my thoughts in recent weeks as I researched stories about one of Philadelphia’s great coxswains, John Hartigan, who is being honored at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta (more on him later).

Joe Burk is someone Philadelphia should remember and celebrate, though I myself had never heard of him when I set out to write Boathouse Row. If you’ve read Boys in the Boat and rooted for the University of Washington to go to the “Hitler Olympics,” then you’ve probably forgotten which crew almost went instead, barely losing to Washington at the 1936 Olympic trials: It was the University of Pennsylvania –with Joe Burk, a recent graduate, in that losing eight-oared boat. He had also hoped to get to the ’36 Olympics in the single, but lost to Dan Barrow (who went on to win a bronze medal in Germany).

Joe Burk, rowing icon of the 1930s

After those defeats, Burk vowed to never lose another race. He corresponded with famed boat maker George Pocock, developed a hugely fast stroke (40 per minute) and won the next 37 races in his single. He became the greatest single sculler in the world and won the prestigious Sullivan Award as the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete of 1939. (Only one other rower, John B. Kelly Jr., has ever won it.) Burk was a shoe-in for the 1940 Olympics. But war cancelled those games. Instead, Burk went off to the Pacific where he sank Japanese supply boats and was decorated with a Navy Cross, Silver Star and two Bronze Stars.

Burk gained more fame as a storied crew coach at the University of Pennsylvania from 1951 to 1967. Recently, Howard Greenberg of the Penn Class of ’68, who rowed under Burk, sent me a rare copy of a tribute book to him, on the occasion of Burk’s 90th birthday in 2005. (He died three years later).

Some excerpts.

Ted Nash, Olympian and Penn crew coach: “He offered a clean, straight-living guideline for youth, and was almost fearsome in his moral standards, yet was not considered a prude or immobile… His leadership in crew was guided by the concept that he was creating a better group of people as a result of rowing’s demands for success.”

Reed Kinderman, Penn Class of 1969: After recounting the legendary story of Joe plunging into a frigid Schuylkill on a day when students didn’t want to leave the boathouse, Kinderman wrote: “Joe coached and led us by example. He would not ask us to do something that he would not or could not do himself….One of Joe’s gifts to us, as a coach, was to teach us that there was much more to us than we realized. He taught us to reach down within ourselves and find more, which we did.”

Nick Paumgarten, Class of 1967: “We were rowing 18 miles a day Monday through Friday and 24 miles on Saturdays. I was into the training and feeling good. Suddenly on my right, on the shore line, I see a body and yell over to Joe: ‘Joe!’ and he gives me the usual ‘what now, Nick’ kind of expression… I said: ‘Joe, there is a body over there.” Joe took a look… and typically non-plussed, said “Okay, we will get him on the way back.”

Howard Greenberg, Class of 1967: “Over the years I learned a great deal from Joe. I learned how to row, and even won a collegiate championship. That was secondary. I learned about work, self-confidence, humility, grace, gentility, patriotism, dedication, dealing with adversity, strength and so many other things that young men should learn. Most of these lessons were transmitted non-verbally, by example.”

When the 5-foot, 1-inch John Hartigan turned up on campus in 1959, Joe Burk encouraged him to become the athlete that this young man, born with spina bifida, craved to be. Hartigan became coxswain of world championship crews. Now 79, Hartigan will be honored on Oct. 27 at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta with an award in his name to be given in perpetuity to outstanding high school JV crews. I’ll be writing more about him then.

Coxswain John Hartigan (left) with Penn coach Joe Burk in early 1960s
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