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Today, a massive bronze award will be given for the first time to high school rowers at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta. The John Hartigan trophy is named for one of the all-time great coxswains, who was honored at a dinner last night by his friends and the oarsmen and oarswomen under whose loud and always funny comments and commands they rowed to victory.

Here is a story I wrote for today’s Philadelphia Inquirer (see the “Upside” section.” And a photo from last night’s event. And below is a story I wrote for the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta program book.

John Hartigan (seated) with Gardner Cadwalader and sculptor Christopher

John Hartigan: Coxswain of Comedy  

By Dotty Brown

Ask someone about champion coxswain John Hartigan and the first thing you hear is laughing. His crewmates crack up thinking back on his exquisitely timed, guffaw-producing – and likely profane – jabs at competitors, not to mention swipes at his own crew.

Then there’s his surprising voice for a guy who stood just five-foot-one and a half inches and weighed 115 pounds.

Fellow coxswain Mike Cipollone remembers being on the Schuylkill in high school and hearing Hartigan, then out of college and steering for Vesper or PennAC. “He used to go out in an eight, with no megaphone!…He had the loudest voice. He has volume that’s unbelievable.”

John Hartigan’s bellow is just the most outward manifestation of this powerhouse who is being honored today at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta. The John Hartigan trophy will be awarded to the two winning high school JV and lower school crews–an annual inscription for each gender. The bas-relief bronze, by Philadelphia sculptor Christopher Ward, shows John’s face in profile, exhorting his crew onward.

How John exhorted rowers is all about humor, warmth, skill, and a steely determination that perhaps began for him when he was born in 1940 with spina bifida, a failure of the spine or spinal cord to properly form. It left him with modest height, a curvature of his spine, and the need for orthopedic shoes to offset a pronounced limp.

“In his mind, it’s not there,” said Cipollone, who recruited Hartigan to coach would-be coxswains at Monsignor Bonner High School in the 1980s. “For everybody who rows with him in the boat, it’s not apparent.”

In high school, Hartigan managed the football team, but wanted more from sports. At the University of Pennsylvania in 1959, he was spotted as a possible coxswain by Joe Burk, America’s greatest sculler of the late 1930s and venerated Penn coach of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Hartigan’s break came his junior year, when he steered Penn to a first place tie with Yale in the Eastern Sprints.

But first, let Alan Robinson, who led the Hartigan Trophy effort, tell the “refrigerator story”:

“Junior year, it’s his first varsity race ever – against Columbia and Princeton on the Harlem River. On a practice before the race, he rams into a refrigerator on the river and damages the boat.  His coach, Joe Burk, is on the second floor of the boathouse and John’s climbing up the stairs with dread, thinking, ‘Point me to the firing squad.’ He tells Joe what happened and Burk just says, ‘OK, take out the JV boat.’”

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

Hartigan went on to win that race. “To go from the deepest, darkest place to one lit with victory,” he said, “was really a big surprise and I was so fortunate.”

Gardner Cadwalader remembers a poignant moment at the opening of the 1968 Mexico Olympics where he and Hartigan were to compete in an all-Penn coxed four. “John was in the first row as we marched by height into the Olympic Stadium, loping along with his elevated boot, leading all the talented USA Olympians into the stadium. That was a great inspiration for our boat,” Cadwalader recalled. Their four finished 5th.  

At the 1974 World Rowing Championships in Lucerne, Switzerland, Hartigan steered the

lightweight men’s eight to gold. In 1976, it was the Olympics again, where Hartigan’s coxed four placed 11th. He medaled twice in the coxed fours at the Pan Am games – a bronze in 1979 and a gold in 1983. In 1986, steering the eight at the World Championships, his crew finished sixth.

But lots of rowers hailing from Boathouse Row have credentials like these. That’s not why John Hartigan’s admirers easily raised the funds to underwrite the Hartigan trophy.

“There are so many people in rowing we respect, and then there are people that we love,” said Robinson. “Whether he’s coxing a crew trying to get to the Olympics or a 70-year-old masters, there’s such a love for him.”

There’s his sense of humor, of course, which Hartigan found useful as a cox. “I have a distinctive and loud voice and it occurred to me that I could be funny. It’s almost like having a radio show in an eight,” said Hartigan, who did have a show on the Penn college radio station. “To get the most efficient stroke, you have to get people to relax. I realized humor was a great relaxer.”

But, says Cipollone, there’s so much more to Hartigan than humor. “He’s a skilled steersman.” Coxswains “feel it in their ass – their ass will tell them if the boat is doing what you want it to do. He understands how the boat moves, can see what’s wrong and knows what he can do to correct it.” His timing is also impeccable, exactly when, for instance, to call for a drive.

 “And anyone who rows with John knows he expects them to do their best.”

Hartigan says he makes the boat move by focusing on the legs, the strongest part of the body, saying things like, “Come on you schmucks. Get the legs down. Give me 10 on the legs. Good…Better…Better. We’re moving. Hey, Robinson, the next man is you.’  I found that my voice would inspire them.”

Cipollone in the 1980s brought Hartigan on as a coxing coach at Bonner, when such a position was almost unheard of. Hartigan “let these little kids know they’re the ‘top dog,’ the ‘admiral.’  He had 50 words to describe how important they are,” Cipollone said. “We had guys who went on to the Olympics, the Worlds. They went on to Berkeley  to Princeton – as coxswains!”

Several years ago, after Hartigan suffered a leg injury, Robinson decided,  “If John can’t get to the boathouse, let’s go to John.” But for last January’s annual gathering, Hartigan was in the hospital. “I thought, what can we do? We can do a race in his name at the Head of the Schuylkill and hopefully he’ll be there.”

Robinson, who was 20 when he first rowed with John, then 30, chortled as he recounted some of the Hartiganisms that are suitable for print (most aren’t.) “My only personal concern when rowing with John was would I be able to row full power while laughing so hard. But in truth, John made us row faster as 20-year olds –or 60-year olds– and whether the crew was a men’s or women’s.”

“John never has a harsh word for anyone, except when he is cursing them out, insulting their mothers and generally dismissing all of us as unworthy sods,” said Cadwalader. “All in jest, with marvelous wit, clever and original vulgarity, booming in his delivery and Shakespearean with his words, and never to be taken seriously by any of us.”

Hartigan would call people “sphincter breath” or yell,  “Hey, needle dick.” He’d insult his own rowers.  “He’d insult me, competing against him. I can’t respond, I’m laughing so hard,” said Cipollone.   

Howard Greenberg, who was in his 60s when he began rowing at UBC with Hartigan, then in his 70s, remembers this one:

“We were at the top of a head race and a boat comes by with red and blue oars – a bunch of people from Wharton. John yells over, ‘Where you from?’ They say, ‘Wharton.’ ‘Hey, Wharton,’ he responds. ‘Be careful, don’t get indicted!’”

Robinson tells how at a party on Boathouse Row in 1976, some time before the Olympics, “he comes out in a military uniform with medals, and he gives the [George] Patton speech from the movie, where Patton is lecturing the real soldiers.

Hartigan said he first tried out the Patton act at a sales meeting for Smith, Kline & French where he worked in marketing.  For the party, he said, “I wore medals, a helmet, sunglasses. I looked good!”

An unforgettable caper happened at the 1975 Mexico City Pan-Am Games. After the Cuban team jumped the cafeteria line, the American oarsmen decided to take revenge with a “funnelator” Harvard had brought to pitch water balloons off roofs. Hartigan’s task was to creep around with a walkie-talkie to inform the guys on the roof of the location of targets. After one direct hit, wrote Harvard oarsman Hovey Kemp in Row2K, “there went Hartigan, running away as fast as his short little legs could carry him, the antennae that sprung from his jacket hood bobbing furiously up and down behind his head as he ran.”

Recently, Hartigan laughed as he recalled how “all of a sudden the police showed up and everyone ran inside and jumped into bed, acting as if they were sleeping.”

Once in a while, Hartigan makes a crack about himself, Robinson said, recounting a story from the early 1970s that Olympian and longtime U Mass coach Jim Dietz would tell. Dietz was stroking and Hartigan coxing on a raging Schuylkill. “The river is high, mud is swirling. John says to Jim:  ‘If we go over and you see these black shoes sticking out of the water, grab them, it’s me.’”

Looking back, Hartigan cherishes his 50 years as a coxswain and the support of his wife, Donna, for his many hours on the river. “Rowing is a great sport. It brings people together, makes friendships and motivates people.”

Moreover, “It was wonderful because, while I was born with a physical situation,  I had the drive in me to be a great athlete.” 

Dotty Brown is the author of “Boathouse Row, Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing.”