1949: Cinderella Story
It was late February 1949 when a then unknown aeronautical engineer by the name of Charlie Butt went to Washington-Lee High School, in Arlington, with an offer to start the sport of crew there. I don’t think Charlie, or anyone else, had given much thought of the impact this would have on W-L, 100’s of young men and women and the local, regional and national rowing community. This would be the beginning of a coaching career that spanned over 40 years and a sporting program which is now celebrating it’s 50th year. Those of us who were there at the beginning had no idea of the impact this man and this sport would have on our lives and futures. The ideals of hard work and cooperation were instilled in us and they have been invaluable gifts that are still with each of us.
Students were in homeroom that morning when the announcement came over the school PA that anyone who was interested in trying out for a crew team should go to the cafeteria. Some of us went to get out of homeroom and some of us went just out of curiosity. For about 35 of us, it was the start of one of the most exciting and “once-in-a- lifetime” experiences we’d ever have.
Charlie Butt had been a lightweight oarsman at M.I.T. and had come to love the sport of crew which would be all consuming for the rest of his life. Charlie and another gentleman by the name of Fred Maletz were members of the Potomac Boat Club and they received permission from PBC to host the W-L’s fledgling team. It has been a relationship that has existed to the present time and has been mutually beneficial to both institutions.
None of us had the slightest idea, of what crew was, except that it had to do with the water and boats. None of us had any idea of how difficult and how much hard work crew required. As I look back on that cold march in 1949 when Charlie and Fred introduced that group of 35 young men to the sport of crew, it is amazing at what he accomplished. PBC had two rather old “Eight’s” that were in disrepair, and to be fair, daily, Charlie had us alternate the boats. How Charlie ever selected the seating under the circumstances was somewhat of a miracle. He was either very intuitive, a genius, or both. The latter was probably the case. We just simply worked very hard and did what Charlie told us to do.
Our first race was on the Potomac in front of PBC against GW High school, which was our most bitter rival in all sports. We lost by less than a boat length with them rowing in the better of our two boats. That was the last time we lost to GW for the next two years. The next race we won at the Old Dominion Boat Club, in Alexandria, against TJ of Richmond and GW. It was a legendary race in that TJ sank at about the one-half mile mark and we took on so much water that we sank just after crossing the finish line. GW was on the inside and took on very little water. I think we had made up our minds not to let anything keep us from winning as we felt that GW shouldn’t have beaten us the week before. The following week we beat TJ and Marshall of Richmond and were introduced to the term “clean sweep” as all our boats won.
We then had what was to become known as the Northern Virginia Rowing Championships. There was a trophy put up for the winning V8 race. We won and were beginning to feel pretty good about our crew successes. Then Charlie told us about a regatta in Philadelphia called the Stotesbury _ which was for the Eastern U.S. Championships. We had to get permission from the school board as no sports activities had ever gone out of state up to that time. They finally agreed to let us go since we agreed to pay our own way. We set out to Philadelphia and the Stotesbury Cup Regatta with a V8 and a JV8. Of course, we had to borrow a boat from one of the clubs on Boathouse Row _ a boat which was far better than what we were used to at home. We won _ beating GW _ the National Champions for the last three years. We still didn’t realize what we had accomplished as we just rowed as hard as we could and had a good time.
Someone from the Stotesbury Committee asked Charlie if we were going to participate in the Nationals in Detroit, Michigan. Considering the troubles we had gone through just to be able to compete in Philadelphia, Charlie wasn’t sure if we would be allowed to compete in Detroit. However, since we had beaten the three-time National Champions, Charlie decided to approach the school board once again.
We received permission to compete, but there was no money available in the school budget. We needed the large sum of $1,000 to fly us to Detroit. Somehow, Charlie came up with enough money to send the V8, 4 substitutes, Charlie and Principal Richmond. Most of us had never been anywhere prior to the Stotesbury Regatta, so we were pretty awed by the whole thing. We had to stow the oars under the seat of the plane and that caused a bit of a stir at National Airport. Walking through the airport with 12 foot oars was an unusual sight. As we were on a limited budget, we slept in sleeping bags on the gym floor at Ecorse High School. Charlie had his hands full keeping us out of mischief. In the preliminary heat, we were beaten so badly by Lafayette H.S. from Buffalo NY that they were turning around at the finish line when we finished the race. We were a pretty discouraged group of young men to think we came all the way to Detroit to lose so badly. Fortunately, the first two boats in each heat qualified for the final. Charlie had to use all of his psychology to convince us that all was not lost until the race is over. I think we learned one of the most important lessons in our young lives that next day. Everything is possible, if you really want it and work hard to accomplish it. We beat the crew that had beaten us so badly in the heats, and won the Schoolboys National Championship of 1949. One of the interesting things to take place after the winning of the race was that Principal Richmond had said that we could throw him in the river if we won. I feel certain that he was sure we had no chance of wining. The Detroit River in May is a very cold river and you can imagine the pleasure we had in throwing him as far as we could.
We had accomplished what no other crew until that time or to this had ever done in such a short period. Four of us went on to compete in major college rowing programs and one of our team went on to become a major college coach. The lessons that Charlie taught us in that first year with the W-L Crew and at PBC have remained with us and made us better for the rest of our lives.
From 1949 and through the 1950’s W-L was the most dominant high school rowing program in the country. W-L’s record in this period included: 13 National Championships; 26 Stotesbury Championships; 26 Northern Virginia Championships; and, we were the first U.S. public high school to participate at Henley in England.
A great program was started in a great year!!
– Paul W. Yager ’50
Many thanks to George Kirschbaum, former W-L rower and coach, for documenting W-L Crew’s rich history.
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