Book About Kent’s Henley Champions

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Connecticut is Kent School. The school, which is beautifully located by the Housatonic River, was founded in 1906 by the thirty-two-year-old Episcopal monk Frederick Herbert Sill. Early on, Father Sill wrote that the school would “provide at a minimum cost for boys of ability and character, who must presumably upon graduation be self-supporting, a combined academic and commercial course of instruction, and also preparation for college and university courses. Simplicity of life, self-reliance, and directness of purpose are to be especially encouraged in the boys.”

In the beginning the school had problems making ends meet, but Sill solved these financial difficulties with fundraising and with what would become a famous Kent School ‘self-help philosophy’; the boys had to do almost all the school’s chores themselves, cleaning, washing, waiting the tables, managing the athletic teams, etc. And everyone had to help, boys from wealthy families and boys from families of more modest means were all threated alike. In 1922, when the school had a firm economic base to stand on, Father Sill bought a wooden eight for $800 to add on to the old boats that were already in a boathouse on campus.
Rowing was not a ‘new’ sport for Sill. In 1895, when the newly founded Intercollegiate Rowing Association invited schools to a four-mile championship race for eights at Poughkeepsie, New York, the winning Columbia University boat was steered by Sill.
The Kent crews immediately met with success and already during the winter of 1926/27, Father Sill received an invitation from the Henley Royal Regatta to have a Kent eight compete in the Thames Challenge Cup (as the regatta lacked a true Cup for school boys) in the summer of 1927. The invitation was picked up by The New York Times who wrote about the glamour and glory with an America preparatory school eight going to the famous regatta in Henley. “Sill was not happy with the publicity,” Rick Rinehart writes in his eminent book Men of Kent, which was published by Lyons Press a couple of months ago. Rinehart quotes Sill saying that “I believe there are some features of English sportsmanship that it would be well for us in the United States to assimilate.” Rinehart writes “Father Sill’s ascetic view of sportmanship gave rise to a Kent School Boat Club, KSBC, ethos that was still very much in practice when I joined the club.” Rinehart continues “Humility was the watchword. Neither defeat nor victory was to be worn on one’s sleeve.”
In their first, and only, heat of the 1927 Thames Challenge Cup, Kent met Thames RC who won by a quarter of a length, and ultimately won the trophy that year. Kent then returned to Henley in 1930 and 1933, the latter year taking the Thames Cup. Kent crews would carry on winning cups at Henley also after Father Sill had stepped down as a coach. He was superseded by ‘Tote’ Walker, who “might have been mistaken for one of the Marx Brothers.” Rinehart states. But despite Walker’s rough appearance, he was a true gentleman, who believed that ‘winning was enough’ and therefore told his crews to not win with more than two boat lengths. (Though, a couple of exceptions are known: at one time, when Walker was verbally insulted by another crew’s coach, he allowed the Kent boat to totally whip the other boat in the race.)
In the beginning of the 1960s, Walker took an assistant coach under his wings, William Hartwell Perry Jr., who had coached in Honolulu while stationed there with the Coast Guard. Hart Perry had begun to row at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts, when his baseball coach gave him the hint to “consider another sport”. Perry successfully took up rowing, and continued to pull an oar at Dartmouth, but was soon banned from sports until he had improved his grades. However, he rowed his sophomore year, but at his junior year he had been, as Perry himself would say, “growing the wrong way,” that is, Rinehart writes, “too heavy for lightweight rowing and too short for heavyweights.” In 1964, Hart Perry was appointed head coach at Kent School.
So, having been a student at Kent since 1968 and having tried most of the sports available at the school, and having “excelled at nothing”, Rick Rinehart joined the KSBC in 1971. For the 1972 rowing season Rinehart was sure to make the second or junior boat. When one of the oarsmen in the first boat, Mike ‘Pa’ Brown, had injured his wrist, Coach Perry moved Rinehart over to join Charlie Kershaw, Fred Elliott, John Rooney, Geoff O’Keefe, Clint Whistler, Charlie Poole and Murray Beach, and coxswain Roger Stewart. The crew developed rapidly and their progress was rewarded with a new boat, Frederick Herbert Sill, designed and built by Helmut Schoenbrod.
In their first race in April 1972, with cruel rowing conditions on the Housatonic River, the boys from Kent handsomely beat the crews from Yale and the Coast Guard, but were disqualified as their boat in the choppy water had gone over in another boat’s lane. The Kent crew would never let that happen again. They would win the following races and to this day, some of the crew members are still amazed by the swing the boat had in those pre-Henley races, Rinehart writes. Finding their “rowing mojo,” as Rinehart says, after easily winning the New England Interscholastic Rowing Association’s Regatta, the nine boys and their coach were ready to take on the world, which in rowing terms means the Henley Royal Regatta, where they were going for the Princess Elizabeth’s Challenge Cup. As a spare oarsman they brought the stroke from Kent’s second boat, Garth Griffin, and little did they know at the time what a lucky choice that would turn out to be.
A few days before their first heat, Geoff O’Keefe came down with a severe virus that left him in a hospital room. The boys’ practice on the Thames in Henley had gone swimmingly well, and continued to do so, now with Garth Griffin, the spare man, in the boat. Their first opponent, the British crowd’s favourite and cup holder, Pangbourne, proved not to rock the Kent boat, nor did Brentwood in the final.
The Kent crew of 1972 is still the school’s latest Henley champions, although a fine crew from Kent almost upset Eton in the Princess Elizabeth’s Challenge Cup earlier this summer.
Rick Rinehart’s Men of Kent: Ten Boys, a fast Boat, and the Coach who made them Champions is a well-written and elegant tale of some schoolboys who, together with their coach, show us that real teamwork, and to borrow father Sill’s word “a directness of purpose”, will lead to result as long as we never give in. What Dan Boyne’s fine The Red Rose Crew might have triggered women to keep thriving to reach higher and higher Men of Kent will goad and inspire all high school and college rowers to go for the top level. But it is not only the excellently told parts about rowing that gave me pleasure reading this book. I very much enjoyed Rinehart’s frank way to tell us his story, about his school, parents, a young man’s friendship among other young men and his hope to find future happiness with his girlfriend. It is true that there are several rowing history mishaps in the book – the author is especially stumbling and tripping over which year certain rowing events happened – but this will not cloud my opinion that this is a great rowing book with, what Hart Perry said to me the other day, “a hell of a story”.

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