REMEMBERING CHARLIE BUTT
Carl W. Anderson, May 1992
On a Saturday morning this past April I walked along the winding, rolling, and wooded trail that leads to the buoyed race course on the Occoquan Reservoir. It was one of those days which showed that winter was indeed past, and the trees and hills were filled with the echoes of coxswains and oarlocks as high school crews made their way to and from the course. As I passed other spectators and rowers along the path, I wondered how many of them knew the gentleman to thank for the marvelous course they were enjoying that day. I thought of Charlie’s efforts to develop the Occoquan facility, his illness, and the knowledge that he would not be with us much longer. It dawned on me that the whole area, including the 3-mile Head of the Occoquan course, should be called the Charles Butt Rowing Course on the Occoquan Reservoir. The rowing course aside, there were probably few schools rowing on the Occoquan that day that had not been helped by Charlie in some way.
To begin with, the Occoquan course was a shoestring endeavor, much like Charlie’s 1949 championship Washington-Lee High School crew. I’ve been told that it was Pat Franz who gave Charlie the idea for the Occoquan course. Pat and John Jenkins provided much of the early know-how and sweat that went in to setting up the original buoyed course. Charlie sold the idea for the major rowing facility to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, Fairfax County, and various school programs. Funding from these sources and individual contributors provided a fully operational boathouse with launching facilities by 1979-80. Today, the Occoquan course is “home” to the U.S. sculling team as well as to nearly 15 area crews, including George Mason University.
Charlie was always looking for a new way to promote rowing in the Washington area. Before his final illness, Charlie’s enthusiasm was directed toward building a boathouse for Arlington schools along the Rosslyn shore between Key Bridge and the Roosevelt Island access area. Even from his hospital room he telephoned, with great effort, other members of the Arlington Boathouse Coalition to see how his project was coming along.
Charlie’s reputation as a coach was such that many people totally lost sight of the fact that he was an M.I.T. aeronautical engineer who worked (in addition to military service during World War II) 28 years for the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics before retiring in 1975. Back in the 1960’s, we on the W-L crew occasionally went to pick him up for practice at the run-down old “temporary buildings” that the Department of Defense had on the Mall near the present site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At his daughter Susan’s wedding reception a few years ago, Charlie told me that he had been pleased with his career, had liked the people he worked with, and had been especially proud of his work on the F-14 Tomcat, the Navy’s principal fighter over many years. (If you saw the movie “Top Gun,” you saw lots of
My first awareness of Charlie came through my older brothers, Ken and Allen, who graduated from W-L (rapidly pronounced “dubba-yen-ell”) in 1960 and 1962, respectively. I remember Pop driving me down for my first trip to Potomac Boat Club on a rainy Saturday in April 1958 to watch Ken race in W-L’s 6th eight. The musty old building, incredibly long and finished wooden hulls hanging from racks and rafters, strange sliding seats, clogs, riggers, and enormous wooden oars with peculiar curving blades all worked their magic that day.
Most outrageous was the crowd of that not so safety-conscious era. On that rain-swept day, several hundred high school students and parents overloaded the balconies and locker rooms and swarmed right up through the old wooden structure and out over the cast iron walkway onto the aqueduct abutment. It was a Fire Marshall’s nightmare, but who cared? Dilapidated old Dempsey’s on the other side of the abutment wasn’t going to burn down until 1961, and, hell, everyone was having fun. Besides, the ratio of “Senior Boat Club Members” to high school rowers was low in those days.
Later that spring came word that W-L’s fast crew was going to race in the Henley Royal Regatta at Henley-on-Thames, England. That got everyone’s attention in Arlington, and the name Charlie Butt became familiar at our house. The next year when I’d tell my junior high school friends that my older brother rowed for W-L, their first question would be “Did he go to England?” No, not yet.
Ken rowed for PBC during the summer of ’58 (Charlie’s junior programs were PBC’s largest in those days) and gained 25 pounds growing and lifting weights. It was well known that Charlie always took the greatest interest in those who worked hard, and next season he awarded Ken the stroke seat of the W-L Varsity Eight. Ken kept that seat right on through W-L’s next trip to Henley in 1960. By that time Allen was on W-L’s 2nd eight.
Before the crew left for Henley, I asked Ken about the possibility of my rowing and expressed my fear that the famous Charlie Butt would not want to see me, a puny 13-year-old, in one of his boats. Ken said, “Heck, Charlie is the nicest guy in the world–away from crew.” In some perverse way that gave me courage to take the bus down to PBC while Charlie and the crew were in England. There I met many of the older kids who would be on Charlie’s 1962 trip to Henley along with Allen.
So I met Charlie during the summer of 1960 and was pleasantly surprised. He seemed just as interested teaching a bunch of scrawny pre-high schoolers in a “ruptured centipede” (Charlie’s term for a flailing and syncopated eight) as he did coaching high school seniors and PBC veterans.
In the 1960s (as well as in the ’90s) Charlie was a man who was constantly busy and often distracted. Charlie’s pockets were crammed with notes about things he had to do, people he had to call, and boatings he had to make. And his car or van was always loaded with tools and materials for endless boat repairs and a motorboat gas can to boot. It was a time of wooden boats and oars, all of which needed an annual sanding and at least a couple of coats of varnish. Charlie must have considered the advent of plastic boats and carbon fibre oars a godsend.
In 1964 Charlie told me he earned “about 13 cents an hour” coaching W-L crew. He needed help, not only at the boathouse but also at home where many chores waited while he tended to coaching. Therefore, Charlie had a policy that anyone who consistently helped him with off-season work at home or repairs at the boathouse would be rewarded with being among the first on the water in February. Charlie’s policy gave inexperienced boys a chance to row with varsity oarsmen, and some found their own route to the first boat in this way.
For those individuals who were most dedicated to repairs in the off-season, Charlie made sure that they were presented at the Spring Sports Banquet with a miniature oar crafted by Pete Sparhawk, stroke of the ’49 crew and Head Coach at Princeton. The oar, over 3 feet long and finely finished in W-L Blue and Gray, was coveted almost as much as a Nationals or Stotesbury Cup medal. It was a fine prize for any boy who may have been disappointed at not making a seat on a top boat.
Charlie made it clear to everyone that our seats were up for grabs on a daily basis. During my junior year there was one memorable time-trial when we in the JVs held off the Varsity with a blistering sprint (we could take ’em on a start, too). Charlie shouted at the Varsity, “You damned clowns better get your rear ends in gear–there are some guys in the stern of that JV who’d love to have your seats!”
There were plenty of people to take other people’s seats, as each season began with about 130 hopefuls. We would all stand with bated breath while Charlie methodically drew a note from his bulging pockets and read out the boatings for that day. We would either heave a sigh of relief or suppress our disappointment at Charlie’s verdict and go fetch our oars. Charlie announced the boatings for the varsity boats (1st & 2nd eights, 1st & 2nd fours, lightweight eight, quad, and double), and an assistant coach took care of the others. We’d launch our shells, row about a quarter mile from the dock, and then wait. And wait. And wait. I don’t know why we were waiting. I talked to Br’er Allen about this, and he also doesn’t remember why we were waiting. But we agree that we waited and waited.
Finally, Charlie would come out in the launch, and we would start with a steady state row. “Paddling” to warm up was not yet respectable, so we rowed at full pressure up into Fletcher’s Cove at a low rating, say at 18-22 strokes a minute, to work on slide control while letting the boat run out.
Charlie liked controlled slides. When our ’64 crew won Charlie’s eighth straight Schoolboy (later called “Scholastic”) National Championship and was on its way to England, Charlie stressed to a reporter that we were fast because of our “excellent slidework.” He maintained that slide control maximized the run between strokes, even at a high rating, and offered the best mechanism for ensuring efficient rowing and speed. He would still be right today, even though the prevailing wisdom no longer stresses “fast hands”, nor does it seem to put much emphasis on slide control. (If you think we rowed “that old boring style,” we could start and finish at 42-44 strokes a minute and clear our puddles by nearly a foot for over 40 strokes at a stretch.)
Charlie always found a way to wring the most effort from his crews. All pieces were handicapped according to the abilities of the crews involved. That meant that if the JVs were generally a length slower than the Varsity over a half-mile piece, they had to take a length lead at the beginning of the piece. That way they were forced to bust their humps to stay in front while the Varsity busted theirs to catch up. Ideally, the crews should have finished about even. Charlie seldom allowed two unequal crews to start even. That would ruin a good piece, because the faster crew would soon be loafing out in front while the slower crew would quickly resign themselves to their inferior status and row down to expectations. Better that both be gagging or rasping at the finish.
Charlie unmercifully used this technique on us when we were training for Henley. Interval training was newly in vogue, and Charlie pitted us against the PBC Senior Eight. In 1964, “senior” meant “elite,” not a bunch of old geezers or aspiring wannabees as it does today. The Senior Eight often contained former W-L Henley oarsmen–John Jenkins, Allen Anderson, Frank Benson, Jan Nieuwdorp, Bert Thurber, Tony Johnson–and other stalwarts such as George Baum and Jim Edmonds. Edmonds and Johnson comprised the U.S. Olympic pair that year. Charlie would pit us against this bunch in a series of alternating intervals of one minute “on,” one minute “off.” Of course we were expected to take our handicapped lead for each “on” interval. This meant that we were scrambling during every “off” interval to regain our “lead” for the “on” interval. Some deal! We got very tired. But it paid off later when we went against mortals of our own age group.
Two memories of Charlie at Henley will stay with me to the end. Charlie used to say, “I hate to lose.” Before we left for England, Russ Carmody, our 6-man, had seriously injured his back. During our first four days at Henley, we had a substitute in the boat and things were going badly. Charlie was upset, of course, because it looked like we were going to lose. He decided to cox the boat, and was he cranky! I was sitting in the stroke seat, so I carried my head just a little lower to avoid scalp or ear damage that might result from any invective hurled toward the bow. The boat was moving like the proverbial wet log, and Charlie blew up. I can’t remember the actual wording, but the rhythm and tone went something like, “You goddamned blibbidy-dibbidy, blankety-shittilly, dribbledy-blobs of a Horse’s Ass.” (I remember that part about the horse.) Charlie angrily barked for starboard to row and port to back as we headed back to the docks. As we turned, I looked up and saw three little old ladies sitting on the riverbank and staring in shocked amazement at us and our fuming coach. They looked to be in their eighties and wore wide-brimmed sun bonnets and flowing dresses that evoked the Victorian Age. I nodded their presence to Charlie, who rolled his eyes and emanated one of his wry grins. Our return trip was uneventful.
My second memory was of the final in the Princess Elizabeth Cup. We had gotten Carmody back into the boat three days before the regatta started and things had definitely turned for the better. We’d won four races. Now we were on the starting line with Groton School, a humongous but rather unskilled New England crew that was much taller than we were, outweighed us by about
11 pounds a man, used those new “shovel” oars, employed an asymmetric “Italian rig,” and rowed with the mystifying new “slow hands” style. During the semi-finals they had rowed times identical to ours for the Barrier, Fawley, and Finish (prominent points on the Henley course).
Charlie was going to follow us along the course on a bicycle. We started with 30 strokes in the 42-44 strokes-per-minute range and settled in 1 to a 34 rating. That gave us our largest lead over Groton, about three-quarters of a length. Charlie faked his best English accent and mannerism as he shouted “Well Rowed! Well Rowed!” after us. I briefly looked out to check on our run, which was excellent, and glimpsed Charlie cycling beyond my oar tip as it feathered out of the water. Unfortunately, Charlie missed the finish, rowed at 44 and in our favor. In his words, “I ran into a couple of guys and had to apologize.”
A year later I was on the PBC Senior Eight, and Charlie led us to race in the New York City Championships, which we won. On that trip he showed me a letter he had received from a female relative, perhaps an aunt. She had enclosed a news clipping about Karl Adam, who was then the world’s most prominent rowing coach. Adam’s new oars and training techniques had revolutionized the sport of rowing, starting with a West German upset of the U.S. Eight in the 1960 Olympics. The aunt had underlined a passage which described Adam, who was then 53, as contemplating whether he wasn’t getting a little old for riding herd on a bunch of world-class German athletes. She was trying to get Charlie to consider whether he might not also be getting “too old.”
But Charlie was only 45 and less than halfway through his coaching career. He had yet to develop the Occoquan facility or to set up the annual Scullers’ Head of the Potomac Regatta. He would coach for 26 more seasons, benefitting many college teams far and wide with his graduate rowers. Many sets of siblings would continue to come under his tutelage, and many a struggling program would benefit from his advice or from the availability of an old shell or oars from W-L or PBC.
Charlie invited kids from all schools, including my stepson Scott, to his PBC summer and fall rowing programs. Some of these kids wound up competing against Charlie’s W-L crews, and others went on to become members of the U.S. National Team. It didn’t matter to Charlie. Everyone was welcome.
Several years ago I asked him how he kept it up. He said, “Well, I’m having a lot of fun.” He never forgot that rowing was supposed to be fun. And he tried to make sure that regattas were fun, especially when organized for kids.
A few years ago, there was a popular slogan that read, “Life, Pass It On.” Charlie passed his life on to thousands. This he accomplished through his enthusiasm, determination, kindness, and selflessness. Two of his offspring, Charles and Nancy, are following in his footsteps as rowing coaches.