Even after 53 years at Harvard coaching hundreds of student-athletes passing through Newell Boathouse, Harvard men’s heavyweight crew coach Harry Parker impressed many with his ability to remember graduates of his program.
“[Parker] had an incredible memory for alumni—almost a stronger memory for alumni than for his current rowers,” said James O’Connor ’13, the outgoing captain of the team. “Often we had guys come to visit and go out in the launch with him to watch practice…. This guy would show up and Harry would introduce him before we went out. He would remember all the details about them and all the other guys they rowed with.”
Parker, who died on Tuesday morning after a two-year battle with myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of blood cancer, shaped both the Harvard rowing tradition as well as the greater rowing world, leaving an indelible impression upon the young rowers he worked with. He was 77.
“Harry was our whole Harvard experience,” O’Connor said. “He is a big part of the reason why many of us came here in the first place.”
Just as legions of young talented rowers came to Cambridge to row for Parker, these same crews would return to him in adulthood. Last Sunday, alumni from the 1980 Olympic crew, a boat that was predicted to medal in Moscow but was pulled from competition due to the U.S. boycott, came together for a reunion row with their veteran coach. The 1980 boat is one of six Olympic squads that Parker coached, collecting three medals in the process.
Parker arrived in Cambridge in 1960 after rowing at the University of Pennsylvania and finishing fifth in the 1960 Olympics in the single scull. In 1963, he was promoted to head coach of the men’s heavyweight crew team.
Since then, Parker guided the Crimson to 22 undefeated regular seasons, the most recent of which came this spring, 24 Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges Sprints varsity titles and 16 official and unofficial national crowns.
“[Parker] created one of the most successful rowing programs in the country,” said men’s heavyweight assistant head coach Bill Manning. “It’s really difficult to find a year where Harvard wasn’t a factor in determining who the best was in this country.”
In addition to its success, the Parker era will be remembered for the boathouse culture he created and cultivated. Parker, who was a walk-on rower as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, fostered a unique program that welcomed walk-ons with no prior experience and rarely cut athletes because of a lack of talent.
“Harry created an environment where it’s an open door for people to come in, embrace the sport and challenge themselves to work together to rise high in the sport,” Manning said. “There are legions of graduates that have had a better Harvard undergraduate experience because of the opportunities provided for them at the boathouse.”
Parker was renowned in the world of rowing for his developments in crew as a collegiate sport. He was instrumental in the creation of the fall racing season and set the standard for off-season training.
“Up until the point that Harry became a varsity coach at Harvard, the way the training was approached had been the same for maybe 50 or 60 years,” said Steve Gladstone, the head coach at Yale and the head coach of the Harvard men’s lightweight team from 1970 to 1974. “Harry brought to it an increase in the volume of work and an increase in the intensity of the work that the athletes were expected to do.”
When, in 2011, Parker began juggling head coaching duties with treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 2011, Parker remained dedicated to mentoring his Crimson athletes.
Around Newell Boathouse, the rest of the coaching staff worked in tandem to ensure that he would be able to do what he did best, which in Manning’s words was, “work with young people and focus on the actual rowing and the actual practice time.”
Members of the team understood that Parker was facing serious health issues, but his energy masked the extent of those issues.