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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
On his first day at Harvard, in 1963, coxswain Paul Hoffman walked into Newell Boathouse and tacked up a Mexican travel poster on the locker room door. Almost five years later, in one of the most dramatic races in Olympic trial history, Hoffman and his Newell comrades edged Penn's eight by five one-hundredths of a second to earn a trip to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
The crew, the only Harvard eight over to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, could not realize its greatest dream, however: to win an Olympic gold medal, finishing sixth in the rarified atmosphere of the Mexican capital.
Now a lawyer in his home-town of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, Hoffman described the disastrous first Olympic heat, "In my four years at Harvard, never had any equipment broken or had anyone gotten sick during a race. Now our stroke almost collapsed, two riggers broke half-way through and we finished third."
The high altitude in Mexico City took its toll on many athlets, and the boat had to shuffle its members before a last-gasp qualifying race. Steve Brooks moved from the three-spot to stroke, and Jake Fiechter '67 took three. Brooks, now a private economic consultant in Worcester, had stroked the undefeated freshman boat just a year before.
This make-shift line-up went into the water 30 minutes before starting time, having to place first or second to qualify for the finals. Dead last at the halfway point, the crew came on to take second. Brooks remembers seeing a TV replay of the race where "Howard Cosell was calling us dead, and then he went absolutely crazy."
That was it for theatrics, however, and in the finals, the crew could not place higher than sixth, with West Germany copping the gold.
After the Olympics, all the oarsmen pursued individual careers, and they are now spread all over the world. But distance has not prevented them from keeping up their friendships.
Two of the crew got together a couple of years ago to outfit a boat which one of them had bought, and bow-man David Higgins '69 is still on his 96-foot schooner, sailing somewhere off the coast of Puerto Rico. "My wife and I plan to sail through the Panama Canal, across the South Pacific to Australia, and eventually around the world," Higgings reported last week over a static-filled ship-to-shore radio frequency.
J. Clive Livingston, the oarsman who rowed directly in front of Higgins, accompanied him on his four month journey down to the Caribbean. Before that trip, Livingston spent a few years studying and writing a book on the role of athletics in American society. He is now enrolled in a mid-career program in public policy and administration at the Kennedy School of Government.
Yet these aren't the only crew members who have gotten together since Mexico City. Three of the '68 oarsmen--Hoffman, Livingston and Fritz Hobbs--row each year in the Head of the Charles with their boatmates from the 1972 Olympic silver-medal winning crew. Known as "Free-wheeling Frankie," Hobbs graduated from the B-School in 1972 and now works on Wall Street.
While this trio enjoys an annual reunion, the boat as a whole had a tenth reunion in 1978. They met at Redtop--where Harvard trains for its races against Yale--and rowed after the Crimson-Eli match-up that year.
"We were such a close group, and we had a great time celebrating our tenth anniversary by rowing together," Mark Harrington, the manager of the crew, said Thursday. A special spot on the Olympic squad was created for Harrington, who now serves as senior executive producer of CBS News along with Dan Rather.
One oarsman who could not make it to that tenth reunion was the stroke, Art Evans. "I really wanted to go, but I was busy delivering my third child that day," Evans, an obstetrician, recalled. Evans is now on a fellowship at the University of California at Irvine, where he is also an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology. After he completes his fellowship, Evans plans to return to his position on the staff at the Mayo Clinic.
The two men who sat behind Evans in that '68 crew are also doctors. The captain of the heavy-weight team, Curt Canning, practices general psychiatry in Logan, Utah. The other doctor in the boat was Andy Larkin, the largest member of the crew at 6'5" and 215 pounds. Larkin graduated from the Medical School in 1972 and is now on a fellowship at Worcester.
The whole crew seems to have enjoyed working hard. Canning got married before his senior year and also held down two jobs while rowing, and Hobbs played varsity squash for three years. "Most of us worked four seasons a year for three straight years for sometimes six hours a day on the water in the summer," Larkin exclaimed. "We were fanatic about working hard, but we had fun doing it."
The final member of the crew was Scott Steketee, who rowed in the five-position. Steketee is a computer science teacher in a Philadelphia high school and has helped organize the teachers' union there.
They practiced hard enough to win the Pan-Am Games and finish second in the World Championships during the summer of '67. Then, after extending Harvard's string of undefeated collegiate seasons to five, they found themselves at the starting line of that amazing Olympic Trial race in Long Beach, California, which marked the first time that four American crews who had all broken the six-minute barrier for 2000 meters had ever faced each other.
After trailing the whole race, the Harvard eight crossed the finish line together with their better rivals from Penn. Soon, the photo-finish verdict spread around the hushed crowd--the Crimson had won by about four inches, with Harvard crew coach Harry Parker later calling the Crimson performance "easily the most impressive I have ever seen turned in by any crew."
Steve Brooks summed up the emotions and friendships that made the '68 crew: "My memories are such that the notion of growing old is best wrapped up in the fact that I'll never be able to do all that again."
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