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A Tribute to A Legend – Harry Parker 1935-2013

June 26, 2013

Those who knew Harry Parker closely are sure that the legendary coach would rather his passing did not generate a day of talk and tributes about his accomplishments and impact on the sport of rowing.

“He hates it when people talk about tributes, because he would say they are not really talking about the person,” said Linda Muri, Harvard University’s freshman lightweight men’s coach. “But he touched so many people, I don’t know how you can not talk about what he did, and what he did for the sport. There is no one like him.”

And there will never be again. What Parker accomplished in a lifetime of rowing and coaching, both in building an ongoing dynasty as the head coach of Harvard University men’s crew team, and as a elite oarsman and Olympic and national team coach, could only be compared to what some of the greatest American coaches have done throughout their careers in their respective sports.

Those who knew Parker are sure that his name should be placed on the kind of list that includes coaches like John Wooden, Red Auerbach, Vince Lombardi and Pat Summitt.

Tuesday evening, after a two-year battle with myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of blood cancer, Harry Parker, 77, passed away, leaving behind 22 undefeated regular seasons at Harvard - the latest of which was this spring - and a legacy that will never fade.

“Harry Parker has been one of the nation's iconic coaches and educators," Harvard Athletic Director, Bob Scalise said in a statement released by the university. "He has touched the lives and has influenced countless Harvard oarsmen over the years.

“His love of the sport, dedication to the success of his students and devotion to Harvard are evident in all Harry has done. His legacy and impact on our program over the last five decades will remain. We will miss him as a coach, role model, leader and a friend,” Scalise said.

“To know Harry through his rowers reflected a coach who brought young men to love rowing and to love Harvard,” said USRowing Chief Executive Officer, Glenn Merry. “USRowing has been the fortunate beneficiary of his expertise and generosity for decades, as he led our teams and trained future Olympians along the Charles River. The sport is better for having Harry as part of our nation’s rowing history and more importantly, our collective family.

“I am sad to see this great man and coach leave us. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and rowers throughout the world.”

Parker’s career at Harvard began when he was 27 years old as the freshman coach in 1961. When men’s varsity coach, Harvey Love, suffered a heart attack and died in the spring of 1963, Parker was given the varsity job as the interim head coach.

After a mediocre season and a poor showing at the Eastern Sprints, Parker focused his crew on the Harvard-Yale race, the longest running intercollegiate event. Yale was favored, but Harvard won and Parker was named permanent head coach.

His crew’s achievements include 22 undefeated seasons, 28 EARC Sprints titles, 21 junior varsity sprints titles, eight official and eight unofficial national championships, three IRA championships since 2003 and a 44-7 record over Yale in the Harvard-Yale race.

Under Parker, Harvard crews have competed internationally, including the 1968 Olympic Games and the 1967 World Rowing Championships. He was named the men’s Olympic coach for 1972, and led the U.S. eight to a silver medal in Munich, Germany. He also served as coach of the first U.S. women's crew to compete in the World Rowing Championships, which medaled at the 1975 championships. Parker later coached the U.S. women's eight to a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.

Parker attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in English and learned to row. Following college, Parker began sculling competitively. He won the men’s single sculls at the 1959 Pan American Games. That same year, Parker finished second at the Royal Henley Regatta to six-time champion Stuart MacKenzie. In 1960, he represented the United States in the event at the Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, where he finished fifth.

He was elected to the USRowing Hall of Fame as a coach in 1974 and as an oarsman in 1977.

In recognition of his long and prosperous coaching career at Harvard and for the United States national team, Parker was awarded the 2011 USRowing Medal.

Given in recognition to a member of the rowing community in the United States who has accomplished extraordinary feats in rowing, it is the highest honor USRowing can bestow. Parker was presented with the award at the inaugural Golden Oars Awards Dinner on November 30, 2011 at the New York Athletic Club in New York City.

In all his years of rowing and coaching, Parker never warmed to the idea of being honored.

“Honors are not my thing,” Parker said in an interview with USRowing after he was awarded the Medal of Honor. “My thing is coaching. That’s what I get a real sense of satisfaction from.”

Parker loved coaching to the point that even after he was diagnosed with blood cancer, he refused to leave his position as Harvard’s head coach.

“Coaching just seems like the natural thing to do, quite frankly,” Parker said. “It’s still really enjoyable. It’s challenging, but it’s a challenge that I welcome. I get a lot of satisfaction out of continuing to develop good crews.

“Like most people, way back when I was in my early sixties, I sort of assumed that I might retire around the age of 65,” Parker said. “But that’s because it’s part of the culture, I sort of assumed that that’s the, quote, normal retirement age. And I was a bit apprehensive about that. But once I passed through 65, I said well, that’s gone, now I don’t even have to think about it anymore.”

Not only did Parker continue to coach, but he led his team to the top of the college rowing ranks in his final two seasons.

In the fall of 2011, Harvard won the championship eights event at the Head of the Charles Regatta for the first time in 34 years, then finished the spring season by winning the Ladies Plate at the Henley Royal Regatta.

This season, Harvard recaptured the Sprints title, finished second to Washington at the IRA National Championships, and beat Yale by six lengths in their annual four-mile race in New London, Conn. It was the sixth consecutive win in the country’s oldest intercollegiate sports event.

This past Sunday, Parker was in his coaching launch on the Charles River supervising a reunion row of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. Just one person short of having two full eights on the water, Parker placed his daughter, Abigail Parker, as stroke in one of the boats.

“She did a terrific job, Harry was thrilled and all of the '80 guys were tremendously impressed,” said Harvard women’s head coach, Liz O’Leary in an email to Harvard alumni, friends and family. “Harry was in his element surrounded by family and friends. He was happy.”

Parker, as a coach, was renowned for what he didn’t say for as much as he did. His crews gave him nicknames that reflected the quiet, driven and passionate man that Parker was, including “The Weird One,” but his athletes would do anything he asked, recalled former Harvard oarsman, Tiff Wood.

“He was the best, is the best,” said Wood during in a 2011 interview. “He was the best I had. He was extraordinary. Maybe there are some others who felt like they could have made it anywhere, but certainly for someone like myself, who was not particularly big and not renowned for having the greatest of technique, the fact that he could recognize what I had to offer, I’m hugely grateful for that.”

What made Parker different, according to Wood, was his ability to recognize an athlete’s potential contribution to a team.

“The guys who rowed for Harry knew how to move a boat. They didn’t always look the best, and sometimes people say that as a negative, and that’s ignoring the fact that it doesn’t matter how you look if you cross the line first.”

Like Wood, numerous athletes who have been coached by Parker have gone on to row
In the Olympics, including London Olympian Henrik Rummel, who won a bronze medal in the men’s four.

“He was just very, very competitive, obviously, which is something you will hear everyone say about him,” Rummel said. “He was just a great coach. He never over-coached. He would say one thing and let you focus on it and really allow you to get it right. His minimalistic approach to coaching and the reverence everyone had for him was his greatest asset.

“Whenever he said anything to the athletes, that was law. There was never any question and that’s what made him so effective,” Rummel said.

Parker’s contributions in the sport and his effect on the people he influenced are his lasting legacy. But he will also be remembered as a good man and a good friend to those who knew him well.

“He was a very private person, that’s why people say he didn’t say much,” said Muri. “But besides being Harry, he laughed, he cried, he was a regular guy, but so much more special than that. He’s not replaceable.”

A resident of Winchester, Mass., Parker is survived by his wife, Kathy Keeler, two sons, George and David, and daughter, Abigail. A memorial service for Harry Parker has been scheduled for Saturday, August 17 beginning at 11 a.m. at the Harvard Memorial Church.

Gifts in memory of Parker can be directed to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at:

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
10 Brookline Place West
6th Floor
Brookline, MA
02445

Donors should enclose a note stating who the gift is in memory of and the name of the next of kin. Donations are also accepted online at: http://www.jimmyfund.org/gift or by phone at 617-632-3019.

Community Rowing Inc., which has its boathouse named in Parker's honor, is also accepting donations in Parker's name. The organization has a giving portal set up through "The Giving Common" at The Boston Foundation. To access the portal, visit: https://www.givingcommon.org/profile/1070765.

Ed Moran, ed@usrowing.org. Photos courtesy of Havard University

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