Rudie Lehmann’s Harvard Honorary Degree

While the famous coach and writer on rowing matters, Rudie Lehmann is mostly remembered for coaching either Oxford or Cambridge (he studied and rowed for Cambridge, but never in a Blue boat), Lehmann also coached Berliner Ruder Klub and Harvard University.

He received an invitation in 1896 from his American friend Francis Peabody, whom he had rowed with at Cambridge. The rowing at Harvard University was in disorder so Lehmann was offered the opportunity to give Harvard a helping hand, teaching the crimson crews the proper English stroke. Lehmann arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the first time in mid-November 1896. He returned to Harvard both in 1897 and 1898, and although Harvard greatly improved with Lehmann as their coach, the crimsons never won a race during this time.

As the true gentleman coach, Lehmann never asked for any pay. In June 1897, Harvard awarded Lehmann an honorary degree, which was reported in some American newspapers. With the head line “Mr. Lehmann Speaks at the Harvard Commencement Dinner” the Cornell Daily Sun wrote on 2 July 1897:

It is said that all records for enthusiasm at a Harvard commencement dinner were broken when Mr. R. C. Lehmann was called upon for the third toast. Mr. Lehmann spoke as follows:

“It is my duty to-day to endeavor to the best of my ability to pay the many debts that I have incurred since I came among you in the early spring, but in the first place let me discharge, so far as I can, one debt of gratitude. I mean the debt I owe to this great university, and the high distinction which she has to-day conferred upon me by giving me an honorary degree. [Applause.] Whereas formerly it was my feeling that I might look on as a stranger, a sympathizing stranger only, now I feel that it is my right to cherish the great traditions that have come down to the university through the past generations; that it is my duty to take an active and deep interest in all that concerns her welfare, looking back on all that has passed since the first little seed was planted at Harvard. Looking back to all that has passed, I cannot tell you how deeply I feel the honor that has been done me today in making me one of the great body of Harvard graduates. [Applause.]

“Secondly, I desire to acknowledge the kindliness and consideration, the courtesy and generosity that have been extended to me ever since I set foot on these shores by every man connected with the university, from President Eliot down.

“For your President found time in the midst of all his engrossing duties – he found time, I say – to express his interest in the crew, and to show that whatever went on in Harvard, whether it was a matter of academic or athletic exercise, it was a matter of the deepest concern to him. [Applause]
 
“For that expression which he gave l thank him. I can assure him that when it was communicated to the crew it touched their hearts deeply.

“I cannot help thinking on this occasion of what might have been. [Applause] I might have represented here a victorious cause, but the dream has passed for this year at any rate.

“Coming among you, as I have to-day, I have found that Harvard men are always ready and willing to extend a greeting, even though they have met with defeat. I have seen to-day men whose friendship it has been my privilege to make, and as I clasped their hands and look into their eyes no words were necessary to assure me how deeply they as Harvard men felt for what happened on Friday last.

“I have seen also men whom I scarcely knew by name, who have come to me and expressed their empathy and their hope that on some future day Harvard might yet win in a boat race.

“I assure you, gentlemen, that this expression of kindliness has overwhelmed me.

“It is the custom to look upon us Englishmen as a sort of coldblooded and phlegmatic race, and in many respects we are; but I think when you once touch us, when you pierce through that outer crust of reserve, you will find we are stirred by emotion as high, by enthusiasm as sincere, and by a generosity not less deep than the qualities you find in the men at Harvard.

“At any rate, it is in the spirit of one who has been adopted as your brother that I appear here before you, and I feel, having been associated with one of her athletic interests, that I have become a son of Harvard and a brother to those whom I see around me, united with them in a spirit and devotion which I hope will last as long life itself.” |Applause.]

Lehmann showing the stroke in a fixed-seat.

So what did Rudie Lehmann get out of his time in America, more than an honorary degree at Harvard? Well, on 14 September 1898, a short piece in The New York Times informed that Harvard’s English coach the previous day had married Miss Alice Marie Davis in Worcester, Massachusetts. Lehmann had met Miss Davis in Mr. and Mrs. Francis Peabody’s home, where she gave the Peabodys’ daughters tutorials.

On the day of the article, the 42-year-old Englishman sailed with his 24-year-old American bride aboard Majestic to Liverpool, England. ‘On arriving home to their house, “Fieldhead”, at Bourne End, they were greeted with a triumphal arch, a banquet in the village and an address from the vicar’ the American rowing historian Thomas Mendenhall wrote in a 1979 article about Rudie Lehmann.

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