The independent voice of rowing in Britain

Philosopher who kept the Crimsons on top

Posted by rowingvoice on July 2, 2013

Harry Parker, coach at Harvard for half a century, died peacefully on 25 June, aged 77. Christopher Dodd marks his passing

Harry Parker must rank as the most successful college coach of all time. His crews were undefeated in 22 of his 51 seasons as Harvard coach and won 43 of his 50 races against Yale. Parker also coached US crews six times in the Olympics, his eight winning silver in 1972 and his double a gold in 1984. His Olympic eight of 1980, forced to boycott the Moscow Games by President Carter’s government, came to Henley instead and won the Grand.

Parker’s introduction to a life of coaching, role-modelling, leadership and friendliness began at the University of Pennsylvania under another legend, Joe Burk. Both their lives wove in and out of Henley. Burk won the Diamonds twice before the Second World War and coached Penn, with Parker on board, to win the Grand in 1955. Parker was obligingly posted to Philadelphia for his service in the US Navy and sat in the single for three years. He had a go at the Diamonds in 1959, losing the final to Stuart Mackenzie, and finished fifth in the 1960 Olympics behind the great Soviet sculler Ivanov and the Pole Kocerka.

Harry Parker carrying his daughter Abigail on the back of his bike at Henley in 2002.

Harry Parker with daughter Abigail at Henley in 2002, the year his Harvard crews won the Ladies, the Temple and the Brit between them. Photograph: Peter Spurrier/Intersport Images

In 1961, aged 27, Parker was appointed freshman coach at Harvard, and was promoted to the varsity post two years later following the sudden death of Harvey Love. The philosophy graduate from Penn quickly became the personification of Harvard rowing, coaxing the Crimsons along a star-studded course of achievement and drama. A goodly mileage of this he observed from a bicycle saddle on the Henley  towpath.

Harvard crews have won 11 Henley events during Parker’s reign. Trips to Henley from Cambridge, Mass, do not occur lightly. You have to win the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship or the Eastern Sprints to earn a shot at Henley, which explains why you can never write off a Harvard boat at HRR. Harry, a coach of few words, was a member of that rare school of coaches who command unquestioning respect from their charges. Dick Cashin, who rowed in Parker crews for Harvard and the US, told me that Harry’s the only man in rowing he trusts entirely: ‘If Parker says it’s going to rain on a fine day, bring a slicker.’ That was in at the boat tents in 1980, and countless Crimsons would endorse it.

At around the same time, Harry shared his approach to coaching with me in an interview at Harvard’s Newell boathouse.  ‘What I see at Harvard is the people who are in it, highly motivated and willing to work for it,’ he said. ‘Obviously the coach has some role in drawing that out… When you try to work people really hard it’s important to make sure that you’re getting the full benefit from that and not working with them too hard… Unfortunately, that’s not an easy thing to judge.’

You have to live with injustices, he said, when performance can be the only criterion. ‘Even for people who are motivated, there’s a pretty natural built-in resistance in the body to working hard. The coach has to help the oarsman overcome that. It’s probably not a good idea to trick them, because you can only get away with that so often.’

One of the enduring images of Harry was him stalking along the tow path to the Secretary’s office clutching the piece of driftwood that had attached itself to his eight’s fin in the final of the 1989 Ladies’ Plate, won against all the odds by the Notts County lightweights. He obtained a justifiable re-row on the grounds of interference by outside forces at his audience, only for his crew to be trounced three hours later by a Notts boat on fire. It was a devastating result for the Crimsons, but it was typical of Harry that he kept the piece of wood and loaned it to the River & Rowing Museum later for its Americans at Henley exhibition.

Harry’s true grit grimace, his physical hardness, was only one of his faces; he also broke frequently into a broad and twinkle-eyed smile. While keeping his distance from his charges, he wasn’t aloof. Another enduring Henley memory is Harry pedaling along the towpath with his little daughter Abigail on the back of the bike. Abigail is now at Radcliffe, and two days before her father died she switched on that smile by filling a vacant stroke seat in an eight at short notice for a 1980 Olympic team row-past on the Charles. Sure as crimson, you’ll find Harry with his bike in the Great Enclosure in the Sky.

Christopher Dodd

Christopher Dodd’s book, Pieces of Eight, the story of Bob Janousek and his Olympians, is available at the HRR shops or by mail order from

“Pieces of Eight is a fascinating book, full of drama and colour, essential reading for anyone interesting in rowing, sport in the 1970s or understanding what it takes to build world-class teams.” – Professor Tony Collins, Director of the International Centre for Sports History & Culture, De Montfort University

For information on Chris Dodd’s books, visit    


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