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Jim Barker: A Quiet Force for Diversity

Jim Barker winning national trophies

One of the most heralded yet humble people on Boathouse Row is Jim Barker, a multi-year national lightweight sculling champion, member of the US Rowing Hall of Fame, and coach for more than four decades at the Haverford School.

What few know is how this quiet but steely man pushed some of the social changes that swept through Boathouse Row, starting in the 1950s and continuing into the 1970s.

That was a time of upheaval on the Row when a handful of Jews, African-Americans, and, finally, women gained admission to the all-male, largely white boathouses.

Sitting in the living room of his modest Roxborough home, Jim, now retired from coaching, told me how he brought the first Jew into the storied Undine Barge Club and later its first competitive African American rower.

As a 17-year-old Irish Catholic, Jim, himself, felt a bit like a minority when he arrived at Undine in 1947.

“I wasn’t aware that it was a white Anglo Saxon Protestant club. I didn’t realize it,” he said of Undine in the 1950s. He had been playing football at Murrell Dobbins high school when Gus Derkits suggested he try rowing. Within a year the two were winning national championships in the double. Jim soon found himself competing against Dr. Edmund Pressman, a rower at Bachelors Barge Club who happened to be Jewish. “He came down to Undine one day and said, ‘You know I’m tired of losing to you people, so I’m going to join.’ ”

Jim proposed Ed for membership, not aware of his own naivete. “I was out in left field in those things, ” he said. “I put his membership application in and I got a call from the chairman of the elective committee. He said to me, ‘Did I propose Ed Pressman?’

“ ‘Certainly,’ I said.

He said, ‘Well, you know he’s Jewish.’

“It never had sunk into me. I didn’t know that it was stirring up a hornet’s nest.” Soon after, Jim said, club captain Francis H. Ludwig phoned and asked Jim if he had gotten a call about Ed Pressman’s application.

“I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Did they ask you to pull your application?‘ I said, ‘They didn’t ask me to pull it but they weren’t happy with it. ‘

“He said, ‘What’s your position?’ I said, ‘My position is I proposed him for membership and I’m sticking with it.’

“He said, ‘Don’t you back down. I’ll support you 100 percent.‘ “

“So that’s how the first Jew got into the club. I didn’t do it as a campaigner or anything like that. He was a friend of mine.” Dr Pressman, an anesthesiologist, later became president of Undine.
Fast forward a couple decades to 1974, when Jim proposed an African American, John Izzard, for the Undine Barge Club. Jim had met John refereeing college basketball to make extra money to send his children to St. Joe’s Prep. On the courts, “I knew a lot of black guys,” Jim said, but he had never rowed against one.

John’s application went through with no pushback that Jim ever heard about. But he was concerned. He counseled John to just focus on the rowing and not worry about making friends.

“I could imagine if I was the first white person in the club, you know you’re being looked at and I just told John, who is a very personable guy, ‘Just go ahead and be John Izzard and people will take you for what you are. And that’s the way it happened. He was there and it never was an issue.”

Today, John Izzard is one of the longest members of Undine. Jim went on to coach John’s son, John Izzard III, to a national lightweight high school championship, but sadly the youth died of a heart attack shortly afterward. [More on John Izzard in a later blog.]

Women entering Undine “was another bone of contention,” Jim said, as it was for the other clubs on Boathouse Row. With the exception of the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club, founded in 1938, the Row held the line against women until the early 1970s. Jim recalls that Bill Robinhold, president of Undine for 17 years and husband of PGRC founding member Ruth Robinhold, “was quietly trying to champion [women at Undine]. He didn’t want to step on a lot of toes.”

Even though women rowers were not yet members, Jim would give them pointers, among them Joanne Wright Iverson, who was just learning to scull at PGRC in the early 1960s. In her autobiography, An Obsession with Rings, she writes:

“Jimmy Barker—who eventually won twenty-four national championships rowing for Undine, the men’s club next door to us on Boathouse Row—also spent some time teaching me, particularly while out on the water training in his single. He would see me on the river, stop, and show me some technique: how to apply leg pressure on the stroke; how to get my oar cleanly out of the water at the end of the stroke; how to row with a slow slide.

Joanne would go on to found the National Women’s Rowing Association (since the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen wouldn’t have women) and promoted competitive women’s rowing nationally.

By the time Undine began admitting women, Jim said, the issues were largely logistical, such as figuring out how to divide the immense and architecturally stunning locker room, part of the club’s Frank Furness design.

Jim today with some of his awards

Looking back, Jim says he never saw himself as an advocate of diversity. It was all about his family’s values and the community in which he grew up. “I never had an objection to a girl, a Jew, a black guy. I went to the Robert Morris grammar school, with black kids at that time. They just didn’t seem that different to me.”

In mentoring hundreds of kids at the Haverford School over some 45 years of coaching, most have returned the favor.

“I used to tell my kids, when you get a chance, give back.” Among those who have done so in major ways are Bill McNabb, and Dr. Scot Fisher. McNabb moved to Philadelphia after rowing at Dartmouth to train with Jim Barker. He made Philly his home, rising to become CEO and now chairman of the board of Vanguard. Scot Fisher was coached by Jim at the Haverford School and became a star rower at Princeton, earning election into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Jim calls Scot, a radiation oncologist, his “Jewish son, almost.”

Both McNabb and Fisher have made huge contributions to Philadelphia’s rowing scene. Along with Jim, they serve on the board of the famed Gold Cup. In a stunning tale, Scot’s father-in-law, Herb Lotman, founder of Keystone Foods, rescued the long-missing solid gold cup from a pawnshop in 2010. Driving off with it, he phoned Jim.

“Hey, Barker,” he said, “I’m driving up the expressway right now and I’ve got the Gold Cup sitting in the lap of my car. What the hell do we do with it now?”

The international single scull Gold Cup race, which was immediately restored to the Head of the Schuylkill, starting this year will be awarded to the highest point scorer of the HOSR plus the Henley Royal Regatta and the World Championships – with a $50,000 prize.

And Lotman’s name is on his own triple-crown single sculling competition, the Lotman Challenge, awarded to the U.S. winner of the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta, the National Selection Regatta and the Head of the Charles.

Despite Jim Barker’s influence on the history of Boathouse Row, today, at age 88, he sometimes sits on a bench at Undine and the young kids walk by, not knowing who he is.

“I’m not going to say, I’m Jim Barker,” he said.

Nor do they realize that the Haverford School named its new boathouse in Conshohocken for him.

“I drive by it every once in a while to make sure they didn’t take my name off it,” he quipped.