Les Eldridge has carried around a question in his mind through seven decades: How did he land in the bow seat of the University of Washington varsity rowing shell in 1957, seated right in front of UW Hall of Fame rower and future coach Dick Erickson?
The longtime Evergreen State College administrator and former Thurston County commissioner found a clue to the answer by reading “The Boys in the Boat,” by Redmond author Daniel James Brown.
The nonfiction book recounts the story of the UW varsity crew that won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi legions. The finely crafted account reveals the rich history of Depression-era rowing under UW coach Al Ulbrickson and rowing guru and boat builder George Pocock, who greeted a young Eldridge when he arrived at the Conibear Shellhouse on the shores of Lake Washington for freshman crew tryouts in 1955.
Eldridge, a graduate of Roosevelt High School in Seattle, had honed his rowing skills as a teenager on the Seattle Junior Crew. He rowed on Green Lake under the tutelage of Frank Cunningham, a former Harvard University varsity crew member.
Despite his experience, Eldridge rotated between the third and fourth freshman boats, an inauspicious beginning to his college rowing. Early in his sophomore year, he was demoted off the varsity boats and into the lightweight class of oarsman. That’s when he summoned his courage and went to talk with Ulbrickson, a legendary coach and man of few words, known as the “Dour Dane.”
Eldridge, seeking to revive his rowing career, suggested somewhat cautiously that perhaps he and the crew program would be better served if he moved from the port side to the starboard side of the shell.
Ulbrickson looked him in the eye and said: “Eldridge, I think that would be a good idea.”
Eldridge made the switch and through the winter and early spring workouts moved back up the hierarchy of boats. But a huge shadow was cast over the season in February 1957 when Ulbrickson delivered some season-shattering news. The Intercollegiate Rowing Association had upheld a NCAA decision to ban Husky athletic teams from championship competition for two years because of a play-for-pay scandal involving the UW football team. This despite the fact that the IRA Championship Regatta in Syracuse, N.Y., later that year to determine the national rowing champions was not an NCAA event. The boys in the 1957 boat were crushed beyond belief.
Some of the sting was relieved for Eldridge in April 1957 when he found himself penciled in as the only underclassman on the varsity boat.
“I couldn’t believe it — it really changed my life,” Eldridge, 76, recalled Friday as we talked about Brown’s book and his treasured time as one of the boys in the 1957 boat.
Despite the championship ban, the 1957 dual meet season was a success. The crew, which also included John Nordstrom of the Seattle-based Nordstrom Co. family, trounced the California crew by seven lengths in a May dual meet on Lake Washington. A week later, they shellacked Stanford by five lengths on a Redwood City Yacht Harbor course south of San Francisco.
“In our heart of hearts, we thought we could win the IRA championship,” Eldridge recalled. “I think we were one of the top five boats in the world.”
Eldridge was stricken with dysentery early in the 1958 season and lost his seat in the varsity shell. The 1958 team, banned from the national championship meet, competed in the Henley Royal Regatta in England, then traveled behind the Iron Curtain that summer to defeat the Soviet Union’s top boat, the Leningrad Trud, in Moscow.
Eldridge was back in Seattle, serving as president of the group of 50 or so Huskies crew members who lived and trained at the shellhouse. He returned to competition on the junior varsity boat in 1959, the year Ulbrickson retired after 32 years of coaching.
Some of Eldridge’s fondest memories are sitting on the floor of Pocock’s shop at the shellhouse after turnout, watching him sanding down a just-finished boat and listening to his words of wisdom: “Balance, rhythm, harmony, that’s all there is to life and rowing, boys.”
Eldridge, an author of four fictional maritime history books, has nothing but praise for Brown’s ability to describe the punishing pain experienced during a race or the special chemistry of a crew working as one, making a boat “swing,” which feels like gliding above the water, sailing through the air.
Back to the question of how Eldridge, the shortest of all crew members, made the 1957 varsity crew. The answer may be found in Ulbrickson’s rowing turnout log, from which Brown quotes to describe crew decisions. It’s stored in the special collections section of the UW library.
“I didn’t know he had one, but I’m going to read it,” Eldridge said. “Maybe I’ll find the answer to what he saw in a 5-foot, 10-inch bowman that made him put me in a world-class boat. I’ve never known. He never told me. Maybe it’s in the log.”
John Dodge: 360-754-5444