11 December 2020
By Chris Dodd
The Great Collector Tom Weil retires from the board of the River & Rowing Museum today. Chris Dodd sings his praise.
If you are interested in rowing history, it won’t be long before you come across Tom Weil. I first heard his name in Los Angeles at the 1984 Olympic Games where I was reporting on rowing for The Guardian. I went to see an Olympic arts festival exhibition on the sport curated by David Farmer, director of the art gallery at the University of California Santa Barbara, where the rowing athletes’ village was located.
Farmer, who rowed at Columbia, had assembled an unexpectedly fascinating show, assisted by loans of many objects and images from the ‘Thomas E Weil Collection’. Visiting this exhibition gave me the crazy idea of a permanent museum of rowing. It was the spark for the creation of the River & Rowing Museum at Henley.
I had histories of Henley Royal Regatta and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race to my name before 1984, but I knew nothing about museums or museumology, so I went looking for people who did. This took me to Boston to meet rowing historians Thomas Mendenhall and Bill Miller and to Washington to see the collector who had enriched Farmer’s exhibition.
Thomas E Weil turned out to be a partner in what reads like an international ‘coxed four’ law firm – Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & (cox) Flom. The son of a diplomat, Weil was born in Kabul in 1948 and moved around the world with his father’s postings, including New Delhi, Tokyo, Seoul and London. He attended Andover, Yale and the University of Virginia’s law school.
Asked how he became involved in rowing, he told row2k in 2008:
My first memory of the sport was attending Henley Royal Regatta in 1963, while my parents were stationed in London. I then started rowing at Andover, but was never big enough to get to the varsity over the next three years. At the 1964 HRR, it was a great privilege and memory for me to see the Harvard Grand Challenge winners in 1914 back 50 years later to the man (one of the spares had died, but the other spare was still the spare) row down the course in front of the Queen Mother.
Graduating from Andover in 1966, Weil joined Yale’s lightweight squad under Jim Joy and rowed in the Thames Cup at Henley in 1970. The Yalies beat Liverpool Victoria in the first round, Garda Siochana in the second, and lost their semi to the eventual winners, Leander.
The 1970 trip to Henley also took in a visit to Ireland when the Garda invited Yale oarsmen to race in the Irish national championships at Blessington. Weil won no metal but had a great time. He finished his rowing career that summer with a silver medal in the U.S. national championship elite double sculls.
Henley also launched Tom’s obsession with collecting all things rowing when he and his crewmate Dave Vogel spent two days exploring antiquarian book shops and galleries in London and bought every rowing book and print they could find. ‘That was when my collecting of rowing art, literature and memorabilia really took off,’ he told row2k.
Weil built his collection assiduously during his five-year service in the U.S. Navy, maintaining touch with dealers in London, New York and Boston from a destroyer escort out of Pearl Harbor (when he applied all of his Vietnam combat pay to the acquisition of rowing prints) and stints of duty at the military language school in Monterey, California, and the U.S. mission for aid to Turkey in Ankara.
By the time I met Tom, he was an ex-Navy lawyer. I spent a long weekend at the Weil home, and while Tom attended to the demands of his three small sons, I sat on the bed in the guest room for 24 hours surrounded by floor-to-ceiling stacks of rowing prints, photos, books and ephemera.
If anybody wondered whether there was enough stuff to justify a museum and gallery of rowing, the evidence was here in the woods outside Washington, D.C. Here was a jolly soul who shared my obsession with the history, culture and humour of the sport, who was a serious and knowledgeable collector who could recount endless stories, and who was excited by the prospect of a museum in Henley that was in its wing-and-a-prayer-chat-in-the-pub phase of development.
Tom and his fellow collector Bill Miller, a former Northeastern University and U.S. Olympic oarsman, introduced me to the Friends of Rowing History. Every second year, the friends arranged a symposium at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, where rowing historians would gather for a weekend of exchange and presentation. It was an activity that crossed the Atlantic when the museum at Henley opened in 1998.
After his time in Washington and Houston with the Skadden 4+, Tom retired to Woodbridge, Connecticut, a town next to New Haven, home of his alma mater Yale, where he continues to be a lively contributor of knowledge on every aspect of rowing history, building a meticulous catalogue of his catholic collection and lecturing brilliantly on artworks, boats, traditions and humour. Tom also serves as a trustee of the National Rowing Foundation and a director of the Yale Crew Association, and, together with Bill Miller, is searching for a home for a national rowing museum in the U.S.
Tom’s connections with Henley include his life membership at Leander Club, to which he donated one of its oldest trophies (won in Liverpool in 1840 and acquired by Tom at auction), contributed a chapter on the “Treasures” of the Club to its 200th-year anniversary celebration volume, and is now wrapping up a campaign to re-dedicate its Yale Room.
But today is a red-letter day at the River & Rowing Museum because Tom has reached the statutory retirement date after serving as a trustee since 2001. In his own words, his time as a trustee will end ignominiously at a virtual meeting:
Since my first contacts with Chris Dodd and other founding spirits such as David Lunn-Rockliffe, Richard Way, Diana Cook, and benefactor Martyn Arbib, and continuing through to today’s leadership under board chair David Worthington and director Sarah Posey, my relationship with the Museum has been one of the most rewarding associations of my life. I have tried to build a collection that celebrated the legacy of this transformative sport, and it is a great privilege to have found a home for so many of those treasures at the Museum. I am told that I will have some future role to play, but I have no idea what. It could be limited to helping clean up the curatorial logjam for which I am partly responsible due to an inadequately documented 20+ years of gifts, loans, and hold-this-for-me-until-my-next-trip-over “deposits”. I’d be thrilled to have them keep it all.
He shouldn’t worry. David Worthington, the chairman, zoomed this at today’s museum trustees’ meeting:
Without the addition of Tom Weil’s extraordinary collection, the River & Rowing Museum, and most especially the Rowing Gallery, would be significantly less comprehensive and a lot less interesting. In fact, I’ve often wondered how many holes we would have in our displays, if Tom chose to take his things back? Lots, is the quick answer!
His generosity is not just limited to objects; as a fount of knowledge he has supported the curatorial team for two decades and as a foundation trustee, has provided wise advice, challenging questions and supportive actions in equal measure. He won’t necessarily realise this, but every time we speak, he always finishes with the words “What can I do to help?”
The Museum owes Tom a huge debt of gratitude… put simply, it would not be the same Museum without him.
Tom’s thought for the board that he leaves is what concerned him from the beginning and concerns him now. Why, he wonders, has the RRM not attracted the support from the rowing community that it deserves. He draws attention to an ‘excruciating parallel for that indifference to rowing history in the U.S. as well’.
Think on it. Meanwhile, if you want evidence of friends of rowing history’s gratitude to Tom, punch Weil into the ‘Search’ box of heartheboatsing.com. There you will find a treasure trove of Tom writings – stories, polemics, anecdotes, arguments and jokes. He estimated his collection – back in 2008 – as up to 10,000 items, including a 463-page bibliography plus a 788-page catalogue of artefacts and archives.
My intention was to conclude this piece with gems from Tom’s own hand, and I began to compile a list of interesting articles. When I had noted about 40 and was nowhere near the end of the list, I gave up. Make your own delve into this archive and you will have an adventure. Expect the unexpected!