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By pmallory - Posted on 20 June 2012

15 April 2011

As most of you know, every Monday there is an excerpt from my book on the row2k website. The last few weeks have dealt with legendary coach Harry Parker, now in his 49th season at Harvard University. Earlier in the book is a chapter about Harry’s sculling career under one of the greatest scullers of the 20th Century, innovative record-setting 1938-39 Diamond Sculls Champion Joe Burk. Here are some highlights:

Harvard Magazine: “[Harry] was born in 1935 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the son of Ruth Parker and builder/contractor Lambert Achilles Parker. He attended high school in East Hartford, Connecticut, where he played baseball and basketball.
“‘I had the distinction of being the lowest-scoring center in the history of the school,’ he laughs. But Parker did well academically and won a Naval ROTC scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he began rowing to fulfill a physical education requirement. He immediately loved the sport.
“‘Rowing seemed to be an activity that was going to reward effort and hard work and was not as dependent on highly cultivated skills as some other sports,’ Parker says. After a year on the Freshman Lightweights, he spent three years rowing 2 for the Penn Varsity Heavies, including the 1955 Grand Challenge Cup winners.
“‘He was very, very good and one of the smartest, hardest-working fellows we ever had,’ says Joe Burk, Parker’s coach at Penn.”
Author David Halberstam: “Burk had a sense that Parker’s physical commitment was exceptional, but there was something more than just physical commitment. One of Burk’s earliest memories of Harry Parker was of a young man working on his oar in the tanks. Parker was gritting his teeth so hard that he drew blood, and even though the blood was running down his mouth, he paid no attention to it. He just kept on rowing. No one Burk had ever coached had as much passion for rowing, not just to do it but to live it all the time.”
Harvard Magazine: “‘Harry was very quiet, almost monastic,’ recalls Gene Bay ‘56, a Penn oarsman of Parker’s era. ‘His idol was Joe Burk, who was one of those very dedicated athletes. Rather ascetic. To Joe, drinking Coca-Cola was practically like having a scotch. We didn’t even have coffee ice cream on the training table!’
“Sometimes after a practice, Burk would dive off the dock for a dip in the Schuylkill River – in February. ‘He was goading us to do the same,’ Bay recalls. ‘Harry was always the first one in.’
“Parker graduated from Penn in 1957 with a philosophy degree, and while serving in the Navy learned to row the single as part of the U.S. Olympic Rowing Committee’s nascent sculling development program. Looking for a few good men to fill seats, the armed services set up an arrangement that allowed former college oarsmen to be stationed where they could scull. Parker was put on a Navy destroyer assigned to Philadelphia.
“‘It’s curious,’ recalls [Vesper Boat Club Coach] Allen Rosenberg of Parker’s days training out of Vesper. ‘He hung up his uniform on his locker, on a hook, and I can truthfully say that’s how he impressed me. No wrinkles, no creases, a military uniform with all that denoted. He was absolutely straight, straight laced, straight living, and very, very impressive.’”

Joe Burk coached Harry by sculling alongside him in his own single, but rather than adopting the high-stroking technique that Joe had rowed in 1938, Harry chose to scull closer to the sweep technique that Joe had taught him at Penn.
Parker: “There was very little coaching between us. There was just pulling against each other.”

At 6’0” 183cm 172lb. 78kg, Harry was not nearly as large as Joe or the top two scullers of his own day, Vyacheslav Ivanov at 6’2” 188cm 187lb. 85kg and Stuart Mackenzie at 6’5” 196cm 227lb. 103kg, but he was superbly muscled, and his force application was visibly aggressive. The overall impression was one of assertiveness rather than of elegance, of strength rather than swing.
In 1959, Harry won the Pan American Games, and then he reached the finals of the Diamond Sculls, where Australian Stuart Mackenzie, a World Champion sculler but an unpopular man at Henley due to his boorish behavior, toyed with Harry, dawdling and then spurting, before beating him “easily.”

In 1960, Harry won the U.S. Olympic Singles Trials, still training alongside Joe Burk.
Steve Gladstone, who later coached under Harry at Harvard early in both their careers, recalls the competition between his two good friends.
“Harry was less than 175 pounds. Joe was 200 pounds. Even in 1960, Joe was still a monster!”
Twenty-two years after his record-setting performance at Henley, legend has it that Joe Burk remained the fastest single sculler in the Americas. According to Allen Rosenberg, it’s no legend. “I saw it myself. He used to row up the Schuylkill off Parker’s bow. He had on his work gloves with the fingers cut off.”
Rowing News: “They were like twins. Clean living guys, hard, hard workers, precise in their manners and the way they worked out on the water.”
Harry agrees about Joe’s faster speed during the year they spent training together.
Parker: “Oh, yeah. I wouldn’t argue that point at all.”
Halberstam: “The amazing thing is that ten years later he was still doing that to the top scullers in the area.”
Still competitive today, half a century on, Harry Parker makes it clear that he used to give Joe a good run on the river.
Parker: “There wasn’t much talking going on during those pieces, I assure you. For all of our endurance training, it was all side-by-side stuff.”

Stan Pocock: “I vividly recall Dad talking about how he wished that he could have convinced Joe that he would be faster were he to scull at a lower rate.
“It was many years later, when he was coaching [Harry Parker], that Joe wrote to Dad to say that he had been right, that he had found that he could now go faster at 27 than he could at 40 when in his prime.”

Tony Palms, Penn ‘61, also observed some of the workouts. “To break the monotony, and perhaps the ignominy of Joe pacing Harry on the water, they would often turn to another form of racing, one running along the bank of the Schuylkill, the other in his single, rowing as fast as he could to beat the runner.
“To make it even more interesting, the runner was on his honor to hold his breath during the interval of every other street light pole, then hopefully regain his breath sufficiently to repeat the breath-holding at the next pole interval.
“Nobody ever questioned whether Joe snuck in a breath or two in those competitions. It was simply not conceivable, knowing Joe as we did.”


At the 1960 Olympics on Lago di Albano, the overwhelming favorite was 1956 Olympic Singles Champion Vyacheslav Ivanov.
Halberstam: “Ivanov, then 22 and in the Soviet Army, was a figure of awe to Parker. The Olympics being about friendship and fellowship, they even had a brief conversation.
“Some of the Soviet sweep oarsmen were Lithuanians who still thought of themselves as Lithuanians and who spoke a little English. They told Parker that Ivanov badly wanted to meet his American competitor, and they coached him in what to say.
“Parker had memorized these words and gone over to Ivanov. They had shaken hands. Ivanov had beamed with fraternal sports pleasure. Parker had beamed with fraternal sports pleasure.
“‘Sukim sin,’ Parker had said in his instant Russian. Ivanov’s face had fallen, and he had become chilly.
“A decade later, watching the scene in the movie Patton where the general said the same thing to the Russian generals, he realized he had said, ‘You son of a bitch!’ to Ivanov.”

Harry “barely qualified for the finals as he had a real struggle to best Anton Redele of Holland in the repêchages. After trailing the high-stroking Netherlands oarsman for 1,800 meters, Parker made a desperate bid and finally took the lead with less than 100 meters to go.
“In the final, Parker made a strong bid 200 meters from home and took over third place. However, the pace set by [Achim Hill, eventual Silver Medalist from Germany] and [Teodor Kocerka, eventual Bronze Medalist from Poland] was too severe, and Parker fell back and finished fifth.”
Still, a remarkable performance.


Harry’s ultimate rowing destiny was not to be in the single but in the coach’s launch. He returned from Rome to become Freshman Coach at Harvard University. Upon the sudden death of Harvey Love less than three years later, he became their Head Coach at the age of 27.
He is still there today.

Harry and Joe remained friends for another 48 years. During the 1960s, Joe at Penn was often the toughest opponent for Harry at Harvard, but he never beat him. On his deathbed in 2008, 93-year-old Joe Burk was reflecting on his life with his daughter, Kathy. Out of the blue, he said, “Harry won all his races . . . but I beat Harry.” Competitive to the very end.
What Joe had been to sculling in the 20th Century, Harry has been to coaching.