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Remembering Joe Sweeney

Joe Sweeney, an irreplaceable character of Boathouse Row who spent years compiling a history of the Row focused on his club, the PennAC Rowing Association, died on Sunday, Sept. 6.

In 2014, as I embarked on my book, Boathouse Row, he graciously toured me through the club, revealing to me some of the colorful stories that characterize the Row. He also loaned me the enormous scrapbook of photos and clippings that, in his passion for history, he had collected. His history of the Row (which unfortunately does not currently carry his byline) can be found on the PennAC website.

Joe Sweeney on the balcony of his longtime club, Penn AC, in 2014. Photo, Dotty Brown

Here are some of the little-known stories told to me by Joseph A. Sweeney (not to be confused with Joseph F. Sweeney, an artist and member of the Undine Barge Club).

How Penn AC came to be:  “The original Pennsylvania Athletic Club was at 18th and Locust, “ Sweeney told me. “If you look up on the building there are sports medallions,” he said. “Then they rented 18th and Walnut. It was a Catholic club cause they couldn’t get into the Union League or the other clubs.” But by 1923, with the excitement of John B. Kelly Sr. having won two gold medals at the 1920 Olympics, PennAC wanted a boathouse– and have its name on the river.

 “PennAC wanted to financially support Vesper, but Vesper refused to change its name to PennAC, so instead, they went to the West Philadelphia Boat Club,” Sweeney said, according to a story he heard “from the guys on the river.”

The deal was done in time for Kelly to switch clubs and win another gold medal in the 1924 Olympics as a member of PennAC.

Kelly brought with him Vesper’s athletic powerhouse, including its vaunted coach, Frank Muller, catapulting PennAC into the international spotlight, with an unbeatable crew in the early 1930s that was known as the Big Eight.

(J.B. Kelly, grandson of John B. Kelly Sr., told me a different story he had heard, though he said he has no idea if it’s true: that Kelly’s cousin and Olympic rowing partner Paul Costello, was caught “entertaining” a woman in the boathouse. In the fallout of the scandal, Kelly split with Vesper, taking with him Costello and their coach.)

Why John B. Kelly Sr. returned to Vesper: In the 1940s, Kelly abandoned PennAC and returned to Vesper. Sweeney says the story he heard is that “there were some guys who played cards and one lost and got really mad and punched an oil painting of Kelly. Somebody called Kelly. He thought they were mad at him.”

The story is probably more complicated. Kelly had been training his son, John B. Kelly Jr. (Kell) since the age of 8 to avenge his father by winning at Henley. (Kelly Sr. had been barred from rowing at Henley in 1920, likely because he was Irish Catholic and had worked with his hands in construction, giving him an unfair advantage over the gentlemen rowers on Oxford and Cambridge.)  Vesper may have given Kelly Sr. a better opportunity to train Kell, by  then a student at Penn Charter. Kell would be chauffeured to the river by his older sister, Peggy, and cheered at races by his younger sister, the future actress and Princess of Monaco,  Grace Kelly. In fact, Kell would fulfill his father’s wish by winning the singles sculls race twice at Henley.

About Joe Burk, champion rower and Penn coach: “Once it was so cold that his rowers at Penn didn’t want to go out on the river,” Sweeney said. “Burk just jumped in the water in his clothes and that was the end of that.”

On Ted Nash, Olympian and Penn Coach: “The interesting thing about Ted Nash was his ability to identify potential athletes. He’d say, ‘I look for guys with big feet.’” 

Boathouse Row is filled with stories passed on in the old days from father to son, and now equally from mother to daughter, but few keep track of them. Steven Ujifusa is attempting to write the stories of these “Legends of Boathouse Row,” before they vanish. You can read Ujifusa’s interview with Joe Sweeney here.

Boathouse Row mourns the loss of Joe Sweeney.