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Manny and “The Flicks”

Manuel A. Flick, the accountant-turned-restaurateur who 65 years ago started the high school crew races launching again March 15 on the Schuylkill, would not be happy that the competition is now called the “Manny Flicks.”

“Dad wouldn’t like that,” his son, Bill Flick, told me recently. “He liked to be called ‘Manuel.'” Of course, he would be thrilled to know that his 1955 brainstorm has grown to involve some 3,000 rowers competing five Sundays every spring.

Manuel Flick, “a Jackie Gleason kind of guy”

Bill, 80, remembers distinctly the incident that prompted his father – who never rowed and never learned to swim – to start the racing series. It happened when Bill was 15 and a sophomore at Monsignor Bonner High School (then still called Prendergast) .

“A good friend of my father was George Mattson, who was coach at St. Joseph’s College. One day, he drove us down to Boathouse Row. Seeing all the shells in the boathouse made me inquisitive. And out on the river, they were racing. It was the first time for dad, seeing racing. My father got in touch with the Fairmount boat club and asked about sponsoring a high school crew. John Carlin was president of Fairmount. He said, ‘Bring some boys down.'”

That was back in 1955. By the next year, Bill and others were rowing out of Bonner and Manuel Flick had come up with a regular race for boys attending parochial and public high schools– the Manuel A. Flick Regatta. At the time, the only competitions for these high school crews were the end-of season regattas, including the Stotesbury and the City Championships. (A Catholic League, involving the private Catholics, did race against each other).

Bill Flick (far right) with early Bonner crew in 1950s

“Dad thought that it was silly to have only two or three races for kids who didn’t attend private schools. So he invited other high schools in for a trophy. Among them were Bonner, La Salle, St. Joseph’s College High School and West Catholic,” Bill said.

The event quickly swept up the family. Ned, another son, became manager of the Bonner program and helped with the point system leading up to a trophy. Bill, the oldest of the five Flick children, rowed in high school, at Columbia University, and with the Vesper Boat Club, where he and John B. Kelly Jr. competed in the world championships in Poland in 1958.

“Afterward,” Bill recalled, “we spent a week in Monaco with the Prince and Princess Grace [Kelly’s sister]. Grace cooked cheeseburgers for us and I held Princess Carolyn in my arms.”

Bill Flick (right) with John B. Kelly Jr.

“I loved rowing. It was very demanding,” Bill said. It also brought him close to his dad, who had left his accounting career to open a restaurant, the Pilgrim Gardens Lounge. He was “very funny, intelligent and very loving. He’d pick us up at school every afternoon, drive us to the boathouse and drive us back,” Bill said.

Bill’s sister, Kris Strid, remembers her father as a “Jackie Gleason kind of guy,” a “personality” who “dreamed in technicolor.” He wasn’t very tall, she said, and had played tennis in college. “Why he started the regatta, I never knew.” But soon the 10-year-old became “the sister dragged along everywhere” as the Bonner crew competed in regattas up and down the East Coast. “It was a family thing, something we did together. It was glue for the family.”

While for many years, she would pass out the mimeographed racing schedules and present the trophy, Kris herself never rowed. “I wish I did,” she said. “I was a hockey player and didn’t think about rowing.” Few women then participated in what was seen as a “manly sport.” The only women on the Schuylkill River until about 1969 were members of the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club.

The much younger Flick twins, Peter and Paul, did not row but Peter took charge of the trophy for many years until his death in 2009.

Don Horvat, a top rower in Yugoslavia who brought his love for the sport to Philadelphia, got involved in the Manny Flicks in the 1970s and early 1980s when more schools began to be involved, said his son, Paul, who is Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy. Don Horvat died of a heart attack at age 59 in 1984, six years after Manuel Flick’s death.

“In recognition of his contribution to the Flicks, my father’s name was put on the race series,” said Paul. It’s formally called the Flick/Horvat Regatta though everyone still calls it the “Manny Flicks.” The races are under the umbrella of the Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association, and some 3,000 rowers will be participating in five Sunday races starting March 15. You’ll see parents and tents crowding the riverbanks — a legacy to the city from Manuel Flick.

The series culminates with the May 2-3 City Championships followed by the Stotesbury Regatta -–the largest high school rowing competition in the world, May 15-16.

And who was Stotesbury, another legend of the river? You can read about him here.