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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
It began last Saturday afternoon just as it has begun for the past 135 years.
They gathered on the banks of the Thames River in Gales Ferry, Conn. dressed in a melange of garden party dresses, colorful Jams, L.L. Bean blucher mocasins and ancient rowing blazers with embroidered crests of crimson, gold and navy filigree, borne with the elegant pride of an era long gone by.
What were they all waiting for? The start of the oldest and most staunchly defended intercollegiate athletic event in the United States--the annual Harvard-Yale crew regatta.
This spring, as has happened every spring since 1852, the young oarsman's thoughts turn to Red Top or The Ferry, depending on where he goes to school.
The Harvard man, be he freshman or varsity heavyweight, packs up his books and rowing shorts at the end of exams and motors down to Red Top, an elegantly dilapidated series of barn-like structures dotting the shore of the Thames River, decorated in a predictable red and white color scheme.
The Yale man, whoever he may be, sequesters himself at Gales Ferry, the Eli camp which unimaginatively takes its name from the town where it is located.
The fruits of the grueling workouts undergone at Red Top and The Ferry are borne on the afternoon of the first Saturday in June. Three crews--freshmen, junior varsity and varsity--push themselves to the limit of their physical and competitive capability over two, three and four miles courses. Wind, waves and undesirable race conditions notwithstanding (as was the case last Saturday) the Race must go on.
For a while, as the parents, girlfriends and ancient oarsmen stood expectantly on the sidelines, it looked as if Harvard Coach Harry Parker might call the whole thing off. Twice he ventured off the Red Top floating dock, causing nervous spectators to squint into the sun to decipher his inscrutable facial expression. The word passed from one knot of people to the next:
"Definitely the freshmen, but not until 5:50 p.m. [nearly two hours after they were scheduled to begin]. We'll let the puppies over the doorstep."
When the freshmen, led by stroke Duncan Wilson, came into view around the left-hand bend of the Thames, a dot on the horizon in the far distance, it was almost too much trouble to watch.
But as the announcer called out the cadences and informed the spectators on the all too distant Harvard shore that their puppies were ahead, the heretofore slightly somnambulent spectators came to life. Two swans, obviously Yale decoys, strayed in front of the Harvard shell, but to no avail. With five lengths of open water to spare, the freshmen cruised to their first Red Top triumph.
Then comes the lull, when we wait for the Spectacle to begin. From nowhere, the shell comes into view. A round of applause, A gentle docking from coxswain Jerome Chao.
The Washburn training surfaces. Before any rejoicing begins, the oars are removed from the river, arranged on the dock and hosed off to cleanse them of the enemy water. The shell is lifted from the water and lovingly laid on its sawhorses. Then, and only then, does a single oarsman lift high the dripping wet blue jersey he has stripped from the back of his competitor, calling for his parents' recognition.
The JVs did not fare as well. A valiant effort, but unrewarded with the tangent, visible manifestations of victory. No trophy to reward the long hours of work at Red Top. Humiliation and shame is the immediate legacy of their race. The sickening feeling of failure felt in the muscles when the Yale boat passed them and hung ahead out of reach.
Hindsight rarely brings solace for the devoted oarsman. The Race will be run and lost in his mind throughout the summer and the following year. It will become an obsession. It is not until the evening after the lost Race that the pleasure of the sport itself slowly seeps back into the body, when the celebrants honor the victors among them who perhaps rarely win the races that are conducted on the river.
It is the symphony of motion which reactivates these athletes, the melodious linkage of exhausted mind and body which lingers through defeat and victory alike. And most important, the promise of another year, another race, another try.
For most of those who rowed last Saturday in the varsity boat, however, this year was their last. Varsity stroke George Hunnewell, seven man Rich Kennelly, five man Claude Sirlin, JV seven man Andy Hawley, six man Alex Litvak, three man Gordon Gwynne-Timothy have rowed their last Harvard-Yale race. Rowed it and won it by 10 boat lengths, the 10th largest margin since World War I. Some, like roomates Hunnewell and Kennelly, have never lost.
Win or lose last Saturday, though, they and their classmates, Phil Mote and Lionel Leventhal--who were victorious in another race in Syracuse, N.Y. Saturday--helped put Harvard rowing back on track.
As sophomores, the seniors broke a four-year Yale winning streak at the New London race. They journeyed to Henley and captured rowing's most prestigious prize, the Grand Challenge Cup. And best of all, they have remained with the program throughout their years at Harvard--nine of the 16 oarsmen in the varsity and JV at Yale last Saturday are members of the class of 1987.
"Needless to say, it was the best of the four years," says Rich Kennelly. "Yale didn't give us much competition, [but] within the shell, it just kept getting better and better."
Tomorrow, Kennelly and his friends who played a major role in the revivification of the Harvard varsity heavyweight program will be graduated from this College. Their places in the boat will be eagerly but respectfully filled by others.
The varsity's win at Yale improved Harvard's record in the competition to 71-51. No doubt, that race, just as the races at Henley in 1985, New London in 1985, Syracuse in 1987, and every single practice on the Charles, will be the talk of reunions to come, as the figures of the oarsmens' minds re-run the watery marathons where their ghosts still sit expectantly at the catch, waiting for another race to begin.
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