In Memoriam: Hart Perry 1933-2011

As has been mentioned before on HTBS, Hart Perry, Executive Director of the National Rowing Foundation and a Henley Steward, died on 3 February, 2011.

With the passing of Hart Perry an era has come to an end. Without exaggeration it can be said, that never in any sport have so many athletes had so much to thank one single man for. Thousands and thousands of rowers and others involved in our much-loved sport would not be where they are today if it had not been for Hart Perry, both when it comes to rowing, but also for what kind of persons they would become after their rowing career was over. I am one of them.

In August 2000, I moved to Mystic, Connecticut, from Sweden without knowing any people in town, except my wife and one or two of her friends. I had rowed in Sweden, but never distinguished myself at the oar. But I was interested in the history of rowing, and someone suggested that I talk to “Mr. Perry” to get some guidance on how to get involved in the sport “over here”. I met him for the first time during a short break at the Coastweeks Regatta on the Mystic River in September. It took Hart a couple of minutes to convince me that I should volunteer for the National Rowing Foundation and I started out by cataloguing some regatta programmes. Hart also called me now and then to ask if I could help him with some odd ends here and there. And through Hart I met other people who had the same interest as I – the history of rowing.

Then late fall 2007, I happened to bump into him after he just had had a meeting with Mystic Seaport’s president. I understood that something exciting had occurred as Hart had fire in his eyes. “We got it,” he said, and smiled. “We got the space for the Rowing Hall of Fame!” Slightly more than three months later, March 2008, the National Rowing Foundation’s National Rowing Hall of Fame opened in the G.W. Blunt White Building at the north end of Mystic Seaport. More than hundred volunteers had repaired, painted and done odd works to make it happen. It was a proud moment for Hart, and his wife, Gill, who was always there to help him, but also for the rest of us in the rowing community in and around Mystic. We had seen history in the making, and if it had not been for Hart, working in all directions to create a permanent home for the Rowing Hall of Fame and the grand rowing exhibit “Let Her Run”, it would never have come into existence.

Two years later, in March 2010, I saw the same fire in Hart’s eyes. 18 new members were inducted into the “Hall”, and more than 250 people had gathered to celebrate the inductees – this was another proud moment for Hart. It was a grand party, and it felt that everyone in “Rowing America” was there. We all felt that day, that we had Hart to thank for it all. Again, Hart was humble, and said it was the rowers that should be honoured. A good example of his modesty were his comments upon receiving the Distinguished Service to Rowing Award, to USRowing, on 20 January: “My feeling is, yes, maybe I’ve done a few things for rowing, but rowing has shaped a life for me that I will forever be grateful for.”

If Hart was not out of the country, as a Henley Steward (he of course went to England a lot), almost every week he and I would be in contact, either over the phone, via e-mail, or in person. He liked to keep me in the loop as he called it what was going on with the rowing exhibit at Mystic Seaport. It could be donations that were on their way in, or “rowing stuff” that had just arrived to his home. If it was larger things, I helped him carry them to the back rooms of the exhibit, or I would do research about a famous rowing race, or an old rower who had his glory days more than hundred years ago. A good example of the latter is Benjamin Hunting Howell, an American who is nowadays forgotten due to having his entire rowing career at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and the Thames RC in London. A beautiful photo album was donated by Fred Elliott, one of Hart’s boys from Kent School, and Hart and I were both amazed by the treasure trove we had in front of us. Each time I found some more information about Hunting, I would fire off an e-mail to Hart just to tell him about my new finding. He would always come back with a cheerful note congratulating me for my discovery, and urging me on for more. It was most gratifying to have him as the recipient of good news, he was like a professor encouraging a student doing research. I am sorry that he will not be around to see the finished result.

In him I saw a mentor and a friend. As mentioned before there are many rowers out there who have Hart to thank for the lives they live today. Of course, they have their stories about Hart. He was a real people-person who could tell stories about rowers and races from decades ago. He knew and remembered the men and women by name, their brothers and sisters, and parents, and wives and husbands, and probably their children. All of us owe it to Hart to now continue his legacy. I know his dear wife, Gill, will keep the torch burning and we should be there to help her. My heart goes out to her and his family.

A good and fine gentleman has passed. Rest in peace, dear Hart!

* * *

William Hartwell ‘Hart’ Perry Jr., who was born 23 August 1933, began rowing at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts, after his baseball coach suggested that he maybe should “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 by his junior year he had been, as Perry himself would say, “growing the wrong way,” that is “too heavy for lightweight rowing and too short for heavyweights.”Instead he became the freshman lightweight coach in his junior year and the varsity lightweight coach his senior year. Perry took his crew to Henley Royal Regatta, the first lightweight crew from Dartmouth to go to Henley.

After Dartmouth, Hart Perry enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and while he was stationed in Hawaii, he coached at the Iolanni School. When he left the Coast Guard, he returned to Dartmouth to coach for two more years. In the beginning of the 1960s, he came to Kent School as a teacher and an assistant rowing coach to ‘Tote’ Walker. In 1964, Perry was appointed head coach at Kent School. In Rick Rinehart’s eminent book Men of Kent (2010), Perry has a prominent place as the coach for ten young men’s success when they were victorious at Henley, winning the 1972 Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup. “That is a highlight that will always be up there for me,” Perry told USRowing in a recent interview. In 1974, Perry was the first non-British Commonwealth citizen to be elected a Henley Steward, and he would become instrumental in bringing American crews to Henley.

Over more than 50 years, Perry lived a life in rowing: he rowed, coached, and served as an official in both national and international events, in two Olympic Games, 18 World Rowing Junior Championships, and 10 World Rowing Championships, and for decades he was working with Juniors within FISA, the international rowing federation. He was the president of the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen, the predecessor organization to USRowing, and after he stepped down from that position, he became the driving force to raise money for U.S. athletes to compete in international regattas. During the years, he received several awards, i.e. in 2009, he and his beloved wife, Gillian, his right hand, were awarded the USRowing Medal, and on 20 January this year, he was awarded the World Rowing Distinguished Service to Rowing Award at the World Rowing Coaches Conference Gala at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames, England.

Hart Perry was inducted into four rowing halls of fame, including the National Rowing Hall of Fame in 1990. Already from the start he was involved with the National Rowing Hall of Fame in 1956, and for decades he was working hard to establish a physical place for “the Hall”, especially since he was elected the Executive Director of the National Rowing Foundation (NRF), which is the organization in charge of inducting members into the Rowing Hall of Fame. In 2008, Perry finally saw a dream come true when the NRF’s National Rowing Hall of Fame opened in the G.W. Blunt White Building at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut.

Hart Perry died on 3 February 2011 after a short illness. He is survived by his wife Gillian; his five children; and 12 grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Hart’s name to the National Rowing Foundation.

Anyone who is interested in writing a tribute to Hart Perry and have it posted on HTBS is welcome to do so by sending your contribution to gbuckhorn[at sign]gmail.com

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