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Varsity Club Still Evolving After 98 Years

By Matthew A. Saal

NINETY-EIGHT YEARS AGO, varsity athletes at Harvard--who called themselves "H men" --began meeting regularly in a room on Harvard Square. They called themselves the Harvard Varsity Club.

Unfortunately, in an age when most Harvard undergraduates were upper-class white Northeasterners who joined clubs for food and lodging. The Varsity Club couldn't offer either. Interest in membership rapidly declined, and the club went defunct within a few years.

Ninety-eight years later, the Varsity Club has gone through several evolutions, seen its Quincy St. clubhouse become the home of the History and Literature Department, and lost its prominent place in undergraduate life. But as a spiritual home for Harvard athletes past and present, it has maintained its special place at the University.

Rather than being the social hub for jocks it once was, the Varsity Club has become a kind of umbrella organization for the various "Friends of" the different varsity teams, says Club President Walter Greeley '53, a letter winner in football, hockey, and baseball. Each of Harvard's 40 varsity teams has a "Friends of" organization. These alumni groups organize such functions as pre-game buffets and tailgate parties.

"We're the legmen for the individual Friends of organizations," says Club Secretary Robert Pickett, who has been affiliated with Harvard for 35 years in capacities which include coaching the wrestling and freshman football teams. The Varsity Club has taken on much more of an administrative than social role, he explains.

Pickett says that the club spends much of its time soliciting money for the various Friends of groups to help pay for major expenses such as team "training trips." The baseball team's spring vacation trip to California, for example, will be paid for largely as a result of the Varsity Club's fund-raising efforts. The Varsity Club also helps attract future Harvard athletes by paying for high school sportsmen who come to look at Harvard.

In an era when, according to College officials, some one-third of all undergraduates play at least one sport recreationally or on an intercollegiate level--a much higher percentage than any other Ivy League School--the Varsity Club's financial support helps a large portion of the College population.

Other functions of the Varsity Club include dinners during the year to honor athletes and a banquet the Wednesday before graduation where the major awards are given out. And this year, for the first time, the club will pay for each member's Harvard letter sweater.

ALTHOUGH IT MAY NO longer be an important part of undergraduate life, the club has an illustrious past as a vital part of College life. After the first attempt at founding a club failed in the 1890s, head football coach Percy D. Haughton '99 and team captain Francis H. Burr '09 revived the club in the fall of 1908.

This time, permanent quarters were secured for training meals and a meeting place for team members, coaches, and letterman alumni, in a Holyoke St. house that had been renovated with the help of some contributions from alumni. With a central place for members to congregate, its popularity increased dramatically.

As the club's size grew, it became apparent that a new home would be necessary. In 1912, largely as a result of the contributions of Allston Burr '89, a new house was built next to the Union at 14 Quincy St. The house was dedicated to Burr's son Francis, the club's first president, who died in 1910.

For nearly 70 years, this Quincy Street location was the place where many of Harvard's varsity athletes would spend large portions of their waking hours. Milton businessman William Cloney '33 remembers of his days at the Varsity Club that "it was almost like one of the private clubs. People lived there and we all had our training meals there. It was very much of a gathering place for us. It gave us a central place to go that was near classes."

The years following the founding club's first permanent home saw an unprecedented expansion of the Varsity Club. In the days before the House system, the club was located in more or less the center of the campus. Football players are their training meals at the club and members of other teams spent much of their out of class now-practice time in the club.

In the early 1930s, when the establishment of the House system created a new set of social centers for students, the Varsity Club became isolated from undergraduate activity, members say. It was not until after World War II, with the building of Lamont Library, that the Varsity Club again became an important part of the lives of Harvard athletes.

In 1955, during this post-war boom period, the club decided to admit all its undergraduate members to its lunchtime training meals, which the club sponsored. At the time Harvard participated in 17 sports and more than 100 athletes dined at the club each day.

Continued success marked the Varsity Club throughout the '60s as athletic participation continued to increase. Women joined its previously all male ranks soon after most of Radcliffe's educational activities were taken over by Harvard in 1977.

Throughout the '70s, however, enthusiasm for the club suffered as interest in House life increased. Training meals, a tradition since the club's inception, were discontinued and the club's board began to look for smaller quarters.

In the summer of 1981, the Varsity Club sold the 14 Quincy location--and the History and Literature Department moved in--and the club moved into its present-day headquarters, a renovated wing of Carey Cage at Soldiers Field.

THE CLUB'S RELOCATION to its present site marked more than a physical change. The move signaled the end of the Varsity Club as Harvard athletes of the past had known it.

No longer was the club a gathering place for athletes to congregate. The clubby atmosphere and camaraderie H letter winners had enjoyed for the better part of a century was greatly curtailed.

"When training meals stopped, the role of the Varsity Club was greatly diminished," says Greeley. "There has been a great diminution in the social aspects which were so fundamental to the club."

The club's Carey Cage location may be closer to the athletic facilities themselves, but it lacks the spacious living and dining areas of its previous home.

"We hoped the move to Soldiers Field would stimulate that social interaction, but it has not really worked out that way," the president says.

One manifestation of the transformation in the club is its changing membership requirements. Whereas it had once been open only to varsity athletes, the club has begun to admit junior varsity letter winners as well. "You don't even have to be a graduate of Harvard, let alone an ex-athlete to be a member," says Pickett.

Greeley says the club is a support system for Harvard athletes in a spiritual rather than a physical sense. "We aren't positive we know what we're doing, but we are positive about our philosophy, which is to support intercollegiate athletics at Harvard," Greeley explains. "We want to ensure that Harvard provides the best possible opportunity to compete at the highest athletic level possible."

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